Craig Finn | The Courtyard | 19 April
During Hold Steady gigs, Craig Finn opens his arms as if to embrace the audience. Tonight he does one better. He opens his heart.
There’s not just a vulnerability to performing alone with an acoustic guitar, these minimalist renditions give his already engaging musical stories fresh hits of immediacy and intimacy. Pair that with candid between-song chat, at times as poetic as his lyrics, and this evening in a rammed, sweaty basement venue is a masterclass in self-revelatory storytelling.
In a series of seemingly off-the-cuff monologues, he touches on Prince, nu metal, the uneasy alliances and strategic truces we form to get through life, the opiate crisis, and how we all want a nickname. He shares memories that are hilarious (vomit and drug busts at a Grateful Dead concert), bittersweet (a true story of love and survival set against the backdrop of 9/11), and haunting (his mother’s dying words). And, of course, he delivers emotional takes on songs that have helped reinforce his position as Springsteen’s heir.
With an emphasis on new album ‘We All Want The Same Things’, there’s an almost a capella version of the desperate odyssey ‘God In Chicago’; a spirited run through ‘Preludes’; a poignant reimagining of the ballad of past glories ‘Jester & June’; a more powerful, direct makeover of ‘Tangletown’, and a fragile ‘Be Honest’ that merely amplifies its despair.
But Finn also goes way back “to the first song I wrote that I still like”. Stripped of its overpowering drumming, late ‘90s guitars, and shitty production, the narrative of Lifter Puller’s ‘Mission Viejo’ snaps into sharp focus. The chugging 20-year-old ‘Nassau Coliseum’ also benefits from the acoustic treatment, adding an urgency to the original’s swagger, while (even without its piano melodies and power chords) The Hold Steady’s ‘Certain Songs’ loses none of its hope and drama.
Even more dramatic, though, are a trio of songs from 2015’s ‘Faith In The Future’ period. The stark, maudlin ‘Dennis & Billy’ still sounds like an outtake from ‘Nebraska’; liberated of its bouncy rhythm section and uptempo delivery, ‘Newmyer’s Roof’ grows in tender magnificence, and the melody and lyrics of ‘Maggie I’ve Been Searching For Our Son’ now stand out in all their haunting, heart-wrenching beauty.