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Craig Finn @ Cactus Club

Oct. 23, 2015

Oct. 26, 2015
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As the impassioned lead singer for The Hold Steady, Craig Finn embodies the ebullient force and never-say-die attitude of the band’s sleek classic rock riffs and youthful rallying cry to keep moving forward or perish. His movement on stage is jagged and convulsive, but at its core, always enthusiastic. “We gotta stay positive,” is a particularly fitting mantra for the band and its devoted fans. Finn first sung that line on 2008’s “Stay Positive,” but that sentiment had long been found in his lyrics—the band’s debut album starts with a “Positive Jam” that lives up to its title, albeit after referencing the strife of preceding decades. Finn’s never been interested in straightforward optimism, but rather hopefulness in the face of dire circumstances. That’s what makes the persona he transforms into onstage so immediate. You may face problems when you walk in the door, but those issues can dissipate, if only for a couple hours, during an uplifting rock show.

That’s not the spirit the 44-year-old has embraced during his solo career. On Friday night at a sold-out Cactus Club performance, Finn was somber and contemplative, continually walking the line between outgoing and reserved, those polar opposites serving as the crux of his second solo record, Faith in the Future. Finn sweetly strummed an acoustic guitar on the show’s opener, “Christine,” in which a lovesick narrator is too cautious to pursue the adventurous title character. Or the next, “Maggie, I’ve Been Searching For Our Son,” where Finn openly discusses death, a movie theater shooting and the Waco massacre.

The subject matter was pretty heavy initially, but things would nosedive into even greater depths later on. Before going into “Newmyer’s Roof,” Finn told a lengthy story about sitting on a co-worker’s roof to watch the World Trade Center buildings burn on Sept. 11. The two drank beers together because they felt hopeless. Finn then described the plight of his now-girlfriend, who was in the north tower when the plane hit, and against instructions, fled the building to safety. It was nearly impossible to focus after such a startling and complicated disclosure.

But Finn wasn’t always so morose throughout the performance. He spoke pleasantly about his grandmother, who bought him his first KISS album, and he toasted his mother, who recently passed away. And he appeared jubilant when going through selections of his solo debut, Clear Heart Full Eyes. He even hung around to chat with fans until bar close, when the only people that remained were him and two others.

It really was special to see Finn work such a small room—the band eschewed a proper encore because the Cactus Club has no backstage to which to retreat—one that the singer said his previous band Lifter Puller played 15 years ago with just four people in attendance. He even satiated longtime listeners’ appetites with songs from Lifter Puller (“Mission Viejo”) and Hold Steady (“Certain Songs”). But that euphoric sense of being able to conquer the world that derives from seeing The Hold Steady was missing. Instead, you got the sense that the world just conquered you.

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