There are two types of great concerts: concerts that you attend to hear specific songs and concerts that you attend to hear music. There's nothing wrong with the first type of great concert. The two best concerts I've ever been to in my life (Paul McCartney and Elton John) were "songs" concerts. We're talking about some of the greatest songs of the last 50 years, one after another, for two+ hours. Magical barely begins to scratch the surface. But I've also been to just as many concerts where I maybe didn't know know all the tracks and perhaps no individual song of the evening stood out but the craft of the performers doesn't simply win you over. It bowls you over for each second of the performance. Blood Orange at the Apollo, Bon Iver at Bonnaroo, any of the times I've caught They Might Be Giants. And now I can add Craig Finn to the list of great "music for music's sake" concerts I've caught, and what great music it was.
Craig Finn played the Lincoln Center American Songbook program yesterday evening, and that fact alone is a testament to the work ethic that has defined Finn's career as one of the most critically beloved songwriters of the last decade. Craig Finn is probably the textbook definition of a "worker" in the music industry...somebody who's never going to have name recognition outside of serious rock circles but who will be able to tour and record music and support himself for the rest of his life. Separation Sunday
and Boys And Girls In America
are two nearly mythic albums for rock heads...the sort of albums that if you find someone else who loves them as much as you do, you immediately know you've made a new friend. And Craig Finn built that loyal following through his hyper-literate storytelling, classic rock roots, and consistent output of quality new material both with The Hold Steady and his solo work. And it was rewarded by playing one of the most storied music halls in New York City.
Speaking of Lincoln Center, I'd never been in the venue before that night, and if you've never caught a show at Lincoln Center's Appel Room, you need to find a way to rectify that immediately. The room's southern wall is a couple stories high and glass and overlooks 59th Street and Columbus Circle with a breathtaking view of Central Park and the downtown Manhattan skyline. It's such a beautiful, stunning view that on multiple occasions, it threatened to overtake my attention from the set. I walked into the hall one song in to Finn's set (I ran late because I went to the main Lincoln Center campus first instead of the Jazz at Lincoln Center building) and my jaw quite literally dropped when I caught site of the view. But that view also made a perfect running contrast with Finn's music. Here is an artist telling stories about the lives of everyday people and out the window of this gorgeous room, I could see that life playing out before me in miniature. It was an intoxicating and hypnotic cocktail of narratives and complementary visuals.
But what about the music itself. Although this was a Craig Finn "solo" show, he played with a full band of massively talented session musicians including the man who produced his last solo record playing lead guitar the whole night. I don't have the name handy of the multi-instrumentalist that Finn had on hand for his brass section, but the guy needs a raise. Whether it was the saxophone or the trumpet (and I think he even had him playing a flute at one point), the man brought an electrifying, jazz-y energy to the whole affair. I got to spend an hour and a half watching world-class musicians ply their trade, and it's hard to ask for anything more than that.
I'm not sure that I knew a single song by name from the whole evening (though I recognized the song that Finn played from his first solo record), but I didn't care. Craig Finn is a storyteller, and he introduced many of the tracks with intimate stories about their creation. He played songs from his first band, Lifter Puller, and I finally heard the influences of Bob Mould and Husker Du that he and I had discussed when I interviewed him recently
(although that part of the convo didn't make it into the actual article). And I left Lincoln Center that night knowing I had seen the culmination of years of playing bars and skeezy rock clubs from a true American original and a true American great.