I first saw Craig Finn in 2018 while he was on an acoustic solo tour sharing the bill with Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon. Clean-shaven with closely cropped hair and black framed glasses, he was slightly disheveled and self-conscious on the stage, a strangely vulnerable presence, his songs full of quiet despair. His guitar work was subtle and folksy.
A distinctly different man strode the boards at Rock & Roll Hotel last Saturday. Better known as the front man for the Brooklyn-based, indie-band Hold Steady, Craig Finn’s solo career since 2012, has offered a vision of fin de siècle America, a country and its people down on its heels, intimate portraits of the desperate and the downtrodden.
Leaning over the audience into his mike, gesticulating manically, Finn delivered his lines with a frenetic energy that electrified the intimate audience. He opened with “Be Honest,” the last track on his 2017 album entitled, “We All Want The Same Things.” Squeezing his eyes shut, he belted:
Her body was an outpost for ideas that didn’t work
A nation failed and broken
Invaded and then burned
And the crumbles and the ashes that settled in her purse
Were the ruins of an empire and the people we once were
Can a song get more depressing? Wait for it…
It really sucks getting sick on the bus
It’s even worse when the teenagers cheer
Ain’t it funny how we all get by?
But not the way that makes us laugh
The lust burns off into handshakes and hugs
In the end it comes down to the cash
In this song, the slow ruin of an aging woman’s body and the transformation of a relationship from love to cash, become metaphors for the larger societal collapse occurring now in the flyover states. Finn is singing of American end times.
The theme continued in the next songs, “Blankets” and “Magic Marker.” The former chronicles a man, who facing death, reconnects with an old flame. The latter narrates the life of a veteran who in the course of grifting his way across the country in a haze of addiction, is the victim of a savage beating that leaves him struggling to even function. Fixed up by the VA, he returns to work for his uncle in a small town. There he finds solace in the small things, such as signing his name with a magic marker.
Finn himself admitted his lyrical preoccupation with the dismal in his remarks to the audience that evening. “We don’t have many happy songs,” he said. Eschewing numbers made familiar by his work with the Hold Steady, his set list focused on his last three albums. While his lyrics paint portraits of failure and darkness, Finn can certainly write a hook. On Saturday, his band’s driving guitars and drums delivered on “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son,” “Newmyer’s Roof” and “Preludes.” While on “Birds Trapped in the Airport” and “Christine,” Finn dialed it back to a softer crooning.
The night ended with a catchy rendition of “Ninety Bucks,” a song about a woman bumming $90 off her friend Nathan to satisfy her habit. The song contrasted dreams of overcoming addiction with the struggle to feed the beast. Here, in his detailed description of desperation, Finn demonstrated exactly why he has secured a fandom in indie circles: A singer-poet compelled to share his vision of American end times.
Andrew Lightman is the Managing Editor of Capital Community News. Living a mere stone’s throw from The Anthem, he worships the musical muse at many DC venues.