Hoxton’s bar and kitchen music venue is strewn with bottles. On every available surface, from chairs to the stage and all over the packed out floor of this sold out show there are beer bottles with the familiar artwork and name of Craig Finn’s solo album ‘Clear Heart Full Eyes’ stamped squarely on the front of Finn’s Signature brew (which, coincidentally, is the name of the East London brewery that specialises in alcoholic collaborations with musicians – well, Finn and the Rifles anyway). Tonight is the last stop on a tour that recently saw Craig Finn playing with New York Progressive folk rockers The Felice Brothers in the tiny Macbeth pub a couple of streets away and also a tour that has taken Finn and his backing band ‘Some Guns’ to countless cities throughout the UK and America. It’s also a tour schedule that Finn reads out like a shopping list onstage, interjecting the roll call of American and European towns and cities with the occasional “Day off” or “Early show”.
Before Craig Finn takes the stage it’s up to support act We Three and the Death Rattle to soundtrack the arrival of tonight’s crowd. With a sound falling somewhere between the primal Blues Shriek of The Dead Weather and the dumb retro stoner groove of Kyuss, the Leicester trio’s set is bolstered by tribal drum patterns throughout and some frantic cowbell/Theremin work by their Singer. It’s gloriously noisy fun and although WTATDR only seem to have one song, it’s a song that benefits from being played unrelentingly loud and see’s the band exiting the stage to rousing applause from the rapidly multiplying crowd.
By the time Craig Finn takes the stage the Hoxton venue is packed out with the devotees of the church of Finn. The middle aged Mojo/uncut readers, younger couples and groups of beer drinking men and women all out of work and ready to hear Finn’s solo record, with its tales of relationships and the down on their luck characters that inhabit the cinematic narrative of Finn’s lyrics, played live.
Backed by a full band Finn recites the aforementioned tour list (which ends with tonight being the last show before a flight back home to Brooklyn and maybe the start of a new Hold Steady record) and launches into ‘No Future’, the upbeat rocker from ‘Clear Heart..’ that name checks Freddy Mercury and Johnny Rotten as rock and roll sages and touchstones of spiritual guidance. Reaffirming what a fantastic frontman Craig Finn is even away from the rousing bar rock of his day job. He converses with the crowd like it’s a table of friends at happy hour in a good bar somewhere over a few drinks and an occasional smoke break. Tales of wanting a theme song like the Monkees, Minor threat and Talk Talk had for his own backing band ‘Some Guns ‘(leading into the song of the same name) to stories of unsuccessful dates at parties (‘Balcony’) and the hazards of post-divorce rooming with guys in their late 30’s (Rented Rooms) are told with the quick-fire wit and humour that Craig Finn has always been known for. That onstage charm also helps to paper over the tiny cracks of tonight’s set, the same cracks that appeared throughout ‘Clear Hearts Full Eyes’ A record that, while showing Craig Finn’s chops as a singer songwriter, also showed that sometimes Finn doesn’t have the voice to make some of the more slower, contemplative songs melodies shine as much as they should have over the weight of his full band. The swells of pedal steel from Ricky Ray Jackson on ‘Jackson’ and the prison wife love triangle of ‘Jeremiah’s Blues’ threaten steal the song away from Finn, who is content to rely on the nervous ticks and finger pointing of his stage mannerisms,
Onstage tools that seem more of a comfort blanket than anything else. On more upbeat rockers like ‘Honolulu Blues’ and ‘New Friend Jesus’ Craig Finn is in his element, showing that his status as one of the best modern rock frontmen of recent years is fully deserved. Witty, visually Engaging, and radiating cool charm whilst still maintaining the regular guy demeanour which has made his work over the last 9 or so years that much more embracing and accessible. He shines onstage tonight during this hour long set and gives the songs that fell flat on record, such as sagging opener ‘Apollo blues ‘ for example, life and vibrancy onstage thanks to an extended jam tied on the end of the song.
After giving the Band a mid-set break the crowd are treated to three non-album songs performed by solo by Finn. A small town Trilogy dealing with subjects such as friendship and drug abuse (‘Dennis and Billy’) the rivalry of the twin cities (‘Those Dudes From St Paul’) and ending with ‘Going to Shows’, a wry tale of evenings spent watching bands play in the backrooms of clubs, all booze fuelled fun and bathroom stall escapades. All three songs are cinematic in feel and with Finn rumoured to be writing a screenplay based on ’Fargo Rock City’ (pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman’s autobiographical tale of growing up a teenage metalhead in the vast open landscapes of Fargo, North Dakota), even more evocative of a small film. The character study of ‘Dennis and Billy’ is the most poignant song Finn has ever written, containing a magnificent lyrical narrative that rests on top of clean, picked acoustic guitar. The storytelling and character driven songwriting which has inhabited so much of Craig Finns work is at its best here on these three songs and received in quiet awe by the dedicated audience here tonight.
The set ends on a cover of Bobby Charles 1972 classic ‘Save Me Jesus’ with Craig Finn instigating a mass sing-along from the beaming crowd who Sing the chorus back joyfully, smiles stamped firmly on faces. As tonight’s audience make their way back out into the cool night air and the sights, sounds and smells of London’s trendy Hoxton streets currently in the midst of an early summer it’s a guarantee that tube and bus rides back home were spent in moods that were as good as you can
get, all thanks to good songs and greater company.