Sometimes, though, it’s just a surplus of output from a jittery, prolific artist, as seemed to be the case with Craig Finn’s recent foray into the solo realm. Its meh response was a less than persuasive endorsement to attend last night’s show at Doug Fir, but recalling the pain I felt seeing Sebastian Bach live in front of 45 people at a 1,000-seat theater in California, I needed to show support.
First, though, the still-thin crowd was introduced to Mount Moriah, a soothing, four-piece alt-country group from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Fronted by vocalist/guitarist Heather McEntire, Mount Moriah steered sometimes sunny, always driving tunes that bubbled with smart lead guitar, darkly catchy melodies and the frail-to-fiery vocals of McEntire. Shades of open-range rock-lite spoke to organic themes—the byproduct, seemingly, of something consumed in the drinking water of North Carolina musicians. But Mount Moriah’s honesty outweighed its loyalties to the staunch blueprints of ethereal country; an especially rollicking example of this was found late in the set with “Lament,” a track found on their self-titled debut that translated just as well live even without the accompaniment of a sneaky organ, and which soared with spot-on harmonies.
McEntire’s tiny frame belied her booming pipes, which sat expertly atop the band’s tight rhythm section. There were no frills here; just a really enjoyable mash-up of Americana sentimentalism, easy-does-it songwriting and poised musicianship. I haven’t stopped listening to their record since last night.
Prepared as I was heading into this show to be somewhat disillusioned by yet another punk rock troubadour (or bumbling spoken-word poet) bartering his back catalog of anthems for an introspective set of newfangled, living room folk, that Craig Finn’s set was a total triumph was surprising to say the least. On his new—and first —solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes, Finn’s penchant for laying down relatable tales documenting betrayals at parties (“Balcony”), ironic Christian allegory (“New Friend Jesus”) and the anonymity of the Twitter generation (“When No One’s Watching”) are decent, but lack the singularity or backbone of his output with the Hold Steady.
The reason for this, which became alarmingly clear during and after this performance, is because without all those big guitars, pianos, screechy solos, etc., Finn’s solo work is totally vulnerable. Yet he’s still the same frontman who gestures wildly with his arms, abandons his guitar to grab the mic and teeter-totter, eyes shut, gnashing teeth softening for a mid-line smirk, and always echoing silently the line he’s just delivered a second time as he retreats from the microphone, staring into the eyes of those in the front. He’s still an angry man at 40, and though his new record sort of falls short of its expectations—and I feel real weird writing this—the fact that he’s Craig Finn, and he can sell a song, in the emotional sense, is reason enough why the audience hung mesmerized on every little hook.
This can also be applied to the merits of the songs as they’re presented live, and shouldn’t undermine the talent of his band. Affectionately dubbed Some Guns, whom Finn recruited following his sessions in Austin, Texas, the group was a formidable bunch, boasting squeaky-clean lead guitar, smooth pedal steel, and plunky bass to round out Finn’s minimal acoustic guitar playing.
Skipping the ruse of the offstage rally for an encore, Finn announced they’d play one more, yet another Jesus-y tune, this time a cover of Bobby Charles’ “Save Me Jesus,” a great, groove-rockin’ finale to a reminder of how goddamn charismatic Finn is, and how great a performer he’s become.