Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) House Show
Ann Arbor, MI
Monday January 16, 2017
Going to a rock show sure has changed, eh? If you’re not filming every other song on your damn iPhone, you’re stuck watching the show through the damn iphone screen of the guy in front of you. Alright, I admit, I’ll take a couple photos at a show if the moment seems appropriate, especially if I’m planning to write about it, but I like to think I am not part of the problem. A couple pics, then put the phone away, enjoy the band and live in the moment.
Maybe I’m just trying to stay positive, but it seems like we might be slowly, collectively starting to realize that some of the magic of a live show is lost when your gadget stands between you and the stage. It seems like we might be seeing less of that (?). And we’re starting to see a backlash - a (somewhat) new trend of “living room shows” where musicians who have obtained a respectable following play a tour of private homes and other non-venues, hosted by fans, for fans. They’re the Uber and AirB&B of rock shows. You’re not going to see ads in your local weekly rag or posters at the record store, but if you’re on the band’s email list or follow them on social media, you’ll probably hear about it. Pat Dinizio from The Smithereens was doing it years ago. Will Johnson (Centro-Matic) and The Bottle Rockets (among many others) have been doing it more recently, and this month, Craig Finn from The Hold Steady did a 12-date tour of intimate living room shows.
I talked myself into going pretty soon after the Michigan show was announced. I’m a sucker for anything limited edition, limited engagement, limited release, limited whatever, and this seemed to me like it could be a special event. I’ve been a Hold Steady fan for years, admiring not only their great songs, but their Midwestern themes and vibe, and their commitment to building a community around the existence of their band and the music they play. I’ve never been one for fan clubs (except Trick International, where I proudly carry card #1824 and get a great Christmas card every year), but The Unified Scene is a positive force for positive people through music. This show was a pretty easy sell.
So I pulled the trigger on the $30 tickets and then found that the show would be held at a Christian church in Ann Arbor. Not exactly a house, but still an interesting setting. They sold about 60 tickets and the upstairs “Sanctuary” room was comfortably full. We got seats right up front, talked to our host Luke (his wife is the pastor), and sat down as Craig loaded in his guitar and a tiny PA. At 8 pm sharp the iPod house music was turned off and Craig gave a little intro to the show and a quick plug for his upcoming record and went into the music.
The setlist was heavy on new material from the forthcoming We All Want The Same Things album, and the title was a theme that kept coming up from song to song. He played “Jester & June”, “Preludes”, “God In Chicago”, “Tangletown”, and “Be Honest” from the new record and the material seemed fresh and inspired, more so than his previous 2 solo releases. He also played “Mission Viejo” from his Minneapolis-based Lifter Puller days, and ended with “Certain Songs” from The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me. Other than an alternate take on “Maggie I’ve Been Looking For Our Son”, a favorite from his first solo record, that’s the extent of the setlist as I can remember, though I may have missed something.
Between each song he took a couple questions from the audience, often using his answers and stories to set up the next number. Questions and banter ranged from songwriting influences and techniques, poetry, locational and age themes in his music, and the recording of and approach to the new material. The setup for the debut “single” from the new record “Preludes” was especially interesting, with a backstory around the Asian gang in his old neighborhood that was the inspiration for the made-in-Detroit Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino, and how they’d soup up their Honda Preludes. It was more like sitting around a living room with one of your favorite songwriters than going to a show.
That’s what the real story is here, after all. The songs and the singer, the room, and the audience, together sharing a special, common experience. I planned to take a photo or 2 for this story, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull my phone out and ruin the purity of the experience. I wouldn’t dream of it. I realized a couple songs in that that was the point, that was a big part of what made it special. When it was over, it was over. No YouTube clips, no photo stream, just the memories. It was liberating and I felt somehow cleansed. It seemed appropriate that it was in a church.
Sometimes you want to go to a club, see your friends, drink whiskey, and have Bob Mould melt your face off. I love that, and those days aren’t over for me, but it’s a different kind of intense to sit in a quiet room and listen to Craig Finn talk to you about his new songs, and then play them - for you. Rock and roll is alive and well, my friends. It’s there for the taking and it’s being served up in fresh new ways. Go to a show.