2019 has been full on for Craig Finn, releasing his latest solo album I Need a New War in between opening for Brian Fallon’s solo shows across the USA and Europe and also promoting a new record from his main band The Hold Steady.
When supporting Fallon he was armed only with an acoustic guitar, but tonight in Bristol’s cosy Exchange all guns are blazing. It is the first opportunity to hear Finn’s new solo material accompanied by his riotous band, the Uptown Controllers. This is their first ever show outside the States, so there are great expectations, which the troupe met with aplomb. It is a truly special evening, with Finn in his element gesticulating his way through his heartland American monologues with his band driving him on to new heights.
Opening up to an initially sparse crowd, fellow New Yorker Laura Stevenson treats us to songs from the recent record The Big Freeze; a departure from upbeat indie rock to a more stripped back confessional song form. Laura treats us to some spine-tingling moments, combining effortlessly her pitch-perfect voice and her creative solo electric guitar work. The honesty of her lyrics and self-deprecating humour won the audience over by the end of her half-hour set.
Accompanied by drums, bass, keys, guitar and an MVP multi-instrumentalist, Finn bounds onstage for ninety minutes of Springsteenian blue-collar storytelling, the East Coast punk ruckus of the main band The Hold Steady replaced by The Uptown Controllers’ easy grooves and understated musicianship. Blankets features a haunting guitar riff as Finn narrates the regrets of old flames whose lives have grown apart.
Finn’s razor-sharp vignettes largely tell stories of middle-class strugglers and strivers trying to find their way in modern America, with Finn’s attention to detail and focus on geography giving his music a real tangible sense of place and purpose. We are treated to a lunch-counter seat at every late night diner and last chance saloon from Albuquerque to Asbury Park, with Finn’s vocals calling on the spirits of Lou Reed, Costello and in the more sprawling soliloquies the mighty Van Morrison.
The shining star of the Uptown Controllers is their saxophonist, who also tries his hand at clarinet, flute and harmonica with equal expertise, bossing his first ever show with the band. One rip-roaring sax solo, in particular, provokes an ovation from the now busy crowd, who clearly know class when they hear it. Stevenson returns to provide backing vocals for Grant at Galena, Finn referencing U.S. army general Ulysses S Grant’s failed retirement and subsequent return to prominence during the American Civil War. The song itself deals with a friend back home struggling to make ends meet, with that link between oft-ignored personal struggles and historically significant moments creating a strikingly human empathy for Finn’s characters, be they real, created, or somewhere in between.
Newmyer’s Roof paints a stark and sober picture of Finn’s experience of 9/11, with no other reaction available than to sit on a friend’s roof, open a beer and watch the devastating events unfold. Whether shaped by catastrophe and war, or by the harshness of making ends meet, life is tough and Craig Finn’s songs tell the stories of people “livin’ just enough for the city”, to quote Stevie Wonder. You find ways to cope.
Her with the Blues and Trapper Avenue see the main set out with handclaps, triumphant sax and smiles on faces, The Uptown Controllers capable of conjuring a last-waltz groove on every track. An astoundingly tight band considering their ragtag nature and perfectly picking their moments to embellish their singer’s vocals, it’s a rare treat (and one unlikely to be repeated) to witness The Uptown Controllers gracing a Bristol venue.
Returning for one more, the band see the show off with the plaintive God In Chicago, a sombre piano-led arrangement backing evoking the surrealistic rant of Coney Island by Van Morrison. This brave closing track is essentially a spoken word piece featuring the hypnotic mantra “We all want the same things”. Finn’s words serve to remind us we have more in common than divides us: his music allows us to do so with a smile on our faces and a wiggle in our walks.
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