Craig Finn is the main talking head from longtime rock gods The Hold Steady. While THS takes a brief hiatus between performing, Finn has finished and a new solo record, We All Want The Same Things, which will be released on March 24. It's a mosaic of storied lyrics and gorgeous instrumentation that reveals true to life characters in troubling times. He's currently on tour opening for power-rock duo Japandroids, who are also promoting a new record. Here, Finn discusses the differences between his solo work and The Hold Steady and his passion for reading between the lines. 

 

Kevin: What’s changed for you on this new album? 

Craig: The big thing for me is what’s stayed the same. In some ways, I made the record this time in part with that same crew, so in some ways it’s like a band making a second record together – communication was easy, we had our own shorthand and knew how to talk to each other. That said, we invited a lot more people into the room this time. There's a piano player, there's a lot of horns – so it ends up being a lot more musical record in a lot of ways, it helped us to branch out into a lot of different elements.

K: How do you go about finding the people you want to bring into that process?

C: We found people we really loved and trusted and got them into the room to see what would happen for the most part. The producer and I would go over the songs first, whether we were hearing horns or piano or keyboard, and then invite those musicians to play and explain what we were thinking, but we would also give them room to play around and see what they would bring. I think that’s really exciting for me at this point. 

K: You’ve got a pretty solid solo career happening. Is this one of your best achievements so far? 

C: I think it’s one of the best recs I've ever made. You’re always excited about the new stuff of course, but I think it’s really helped me to grow as a songwriter and a performer. There are a couple of songs on the new record, one in particular, "God in Chicago," that’s a real spoken-word kind of song. I’ve always been a talky singer, but I just loved being able to do something that was spoken word or a story. There were a lot of good characters on this record, a lot of good sketches of people that really resonate with me and I hope it will with other people. I think it’s my strongest solo record. 

K: Have you developed a preference for performing with The Hold Steady versus performing solo?

C: It never feels awkward but I think it feels challenging. I've done a few shows just by myself and those are really hard, but I think if you get good at them, you’re gonna get better whether you're with a band or not. Everything is just a challenge and trying to conquer it in some way. 

K: Yeah, but now it’s all on you, right? 

C: When you get up to touring, you may be with a band – Hold Steady has been around for 14 years, everyone can take care of themselves – but with solo work, your leadership is more necessary with a show like this. Your name’s on the marquis but you gotta make sure everyone’s being taken care of. 

K: Does that leadership role come natural to you? 

C: It’s a natural role I felt in The Hold Steady, but I think maybe I’ve gotten more sensitive to others in that process. I don’t think that comes easy for a lot of rock 'n' roll people, but you gotta step up and make people feel like there's someone driving the ship

K: Where do you draw your inspiration from when writing lyrics? 

C: They kind of come from everything. It’s reading a lot, listening to people while riding the subway, but a lot of it’s books and just thinking that way and having a mind that’s always thinking of stories. Some of it comes from your own life and what happens around you and some of it comes from the daily newspaper. 

K: There’s a long tradition of writers dabbling in music. Do you feel like that sometimes? Like you’re really a poet or writer moonlighting as a musician? 

C: I’ve never really dug poetry without music, but I do think of myself more as a lyricist, because in The Hold Steady that’s my focus, but it’s the stories that are always very important to me – I’ve always liked reading fiction.

K: What does a Craig Finn bookshelf look like? 

C: I’m always reading something – I’ve got a big stack at home that I’m always working through and people are always giving me recommendations. John Darnielle’s book Universal Harvester, I’ll probably read George Saunders' new book. Right now I’m reading Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project. It’s about how we make decisions and how our minds work. I’d still like to try and write a novel myself but I’m not even close. 

K: What do you think it would be about? 

C: It’s hard to know. It would probably be about realistic, unremarkable people – that’s what my songs are about. That’s what this new record is about. People who don’t start out wealthy or famous but people who are just trying to get by and what that looks like in this world. I feel like people can relate to that. 

Craig Finn & the Uptown Controllers open for Japandroids at the Ready Room on Sunday, March 5.

 

On February 1, a crowd of seven hundred gathered at the Pageant to hear Taylor Goldsmith, front man of Dawes dole out ingenious points of view about life, love, and death.

The latest album, We're All Gonna Die, is a shock to the system and eardrums for fans who were eager for another dose of folk indie rock that initially drew them to the four-piece band in the first place, consisting of Taylor (guitars and vocals) and Griffin Goldsmith (drums), along with Wylie Gelber (bass) and Lee Pardini (keyboards). 

In an interview with Larson Sutton, Taylor explained, "We could have made the same album and no one would have remembered. What would be terrible is if people say Dawes delivered a really dependable Dawes record. Then, no one would care. It's just going to go away." 

There's nothing subtle about the album and there wasn't anything subtle about the performance, either. The experimental, sonic sounds captured on this record infused the live performance with a brand new energy and rhythm. Beginning with the buoyant bass line on the track, "One of Us," the entire first set was a thrilling ride from one song to the next, carried by the bass and made cohesive with piano fills. Lee Padroni joined the band last year and transformed Dawes from a good band into a tremendous one. 

The second set delivered a stripped-down instrumentation of "Florida Key" and "Roll Tide," which focused on harmonies, tambourine, and acoustic guitar. The simple, sincere arrangement was a nod to old fans; it was the signature Dawes that got them in the door in the first place. 

Despite the new electronic elements and experimental beats, Taylor's lyrics remain honest, insightful observations at their finest. "This song is about quitting," he said, echoed by a kick drum and maraca layered beat, before he preached, "Quit wasting my time because pretty soon you'll find. / It's the only thing of value that we own. / You're gonna have to quit everything, until you find one thing you won't." A guitar riff played on nylon strings and distant wailing ride out the song to its abrupt stop. 

Dawes' foray into experimental, atonal beats is reminiscent of when Bob Dylan went electric; there was backlash, but it was worth it. Dylan and now Dawes are examples of innovators pushing past the familiar to become more of the artists they are meant to be. Wednesday night's performance was an unfolding of the evolution of the band. Thankfully, Taylor remains a brutally sincere lyricist, as he sang "Picture of a Man," 

In the heat of an argument 

I got tricked into saying that I knew how I felt

As if you give something a value just by naming it 

I'd be a hell of a vendor if I knew what I'd sell

 

Taylor is a vendor, alright. He sells gold-plated words. To fans wary of the new sound, remember: "We're all going to die," but more importantly, living is best when challenging expectations and pushing yourself further. We're all gonna die, so we might as well live. In closing, here's one last bit of life advice, compliments of Taylor, "You just roll with the punches. Until you can't feel a thing."

 

Click the image below to see all of Dustin Winter's photos of the Dawes performance at the Pageant.

Dawes at the Pageant, February 1, 2017

 

With a lineup that hasn't budged since 2009, the Branford Marsalis Quartet is an elite musical clique that can only be infiltrated by the coolest cats on the scene, which is precisely what Kurt Elling has proven to be. The Chicago crooner brings two decades of turning heads to the already immense pool of experience in Marsalis' saxophone lead foursome, releasing Upward Spiral in 2016 and treating select crowds to the unprecedented union of these two stars. Jazz at the Bistro played host to two nights of shows, giving four opportunities to experience a set music that was far from the ordinary.

Even from a distance, it was clear that the final performance at the Ferring Jazz Bistro was met with high expectations. With the first set slow to clear out, the line to enter filled Nancy's Jazz Lounge to capacity with a small overflow of warmhearted people braving the biting wind outside. Despite the delay, the venue's staff expertly filled the Bistro to its capacity and immediately dimmed the lights to begin. Jazz St. Louis' Bob Bennett, the man charged with intrepidly booking the venue's prestigious lineup, stepped to the stage to introduce the band, but his role didn't end there. The quartet took the stage and Branford Marsalis immediately started to tease Bennett over the limited two-night engagement, punctuating each sentence with the name "Bob," spouted with a melodramatic amount of disdain, and followed with a short "theme song" riff from the band, much to the amusement everyone on and off the stage.

When the delays and jokes had subsided, the show began with the Branford Marsalis Quartet playing the first selection without vocals. Joey Calderazzo began the music with a short piano introduction before Marsalis joined in on a soprano saxophone. The two handled the melody in beautiful synchronization over Eric Revis playing a jumpy, double-time walk on the bass and Justin Faulkner guiding the rhythm with a pronounced focus on his drum set's cymbals. The leader soon relinquished the focus back to the piano for an extended solo and trio style jam before he returned to put on a demonstration of his prowess on the horn. After a flurry of riffs and phrases that traversed the scales, Marsalis signaled the band to a quick close and an immediate applause. 

The second number, "There's a Boat dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," originally from Porgy and Bess, began with Kurt Elling strutting up the ramp to the right of the stage and immediately absorbing the collective attention of the room. The vocalist took the first solo with his signature scat style, but Marsalis and his sax wouldn't be outdone and he soon reasserted his leading role with a groovy style. Calderazzo followed with a solo of his own that danced across the keys. After rejoining the melody, Elling returned to the spotlight with another solo of spoken riffs over a funky breakdown from Revis and Faulkner, toying with the microphone position and the tone of his voice to add dimension to his sound. By the end of the fading outro, a new standard had been set for the night and crowd was eager to hear each coming beat.

They highlighted many of the songs from Upward Spiral, but the clear highlight of the evening was their rendition of Sting's "Practical Arrangement." Branford Marsalis started out on the introduction, building ever more complex lead-ins to a repeated, three-note riff that simply couldn't be before relinquishing the lead to Elling on the microphone. The lyrics came in over a passive piano backing and Faulkner's drums joined near the end of the first verse. As the song continued, Marsalis returned to the mix in a harmony roll, but then stole the spotlight again at the solo. Unlike the assertive styles of the solos throughout the night, this performance was much more reserved with the mood of a breathy whisper, well in tune with the lyrical theme of the song. Faulkner and Calderazzo added their own solos, each soft and ethereal, contributing to the illusory tone of the song. The sax and lyrics returned for the final verse, closing out a performance that was nothing short of an experience.

The night closed with a piece that gave Eric Revis a well-deserved moment in the focus, serenading the crowd with his bass at the lead. Each performer took final solos and Elling added the extra treat of augmenting his voice with an empty drinking glass to mimic the sounds of a muted trumpet during his segment. At the close of the set the band walked out to the expected extended ovation.

It took over three decades before the Branford Marsalis Quartet featured a vocalist, but Kurt Elling took the honorable role and demonstrated just how great the arrangement can be. For two nights, St. Louis was afforded the opportunity to experience this collaboration of the ages. The only regret shared by anyone involved, as Marsalis put in before the set began, was that the engagement was limited to two nights...Bob. 

To view all of Gary Eckert's photos from the evening, click the image below. 

Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling at Jazz at the Bistro, January 25, 2017

 

You can't keep a good fiddle player down. But then Sara Watkins is no mere violinist -- she's well on her way to becoming one of the greats and she proved it with a sold-out show at Old Rock House on Saturday, January 28. 

Late last year, when Garrison Keillor announced he would be retiring from his successful radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion," it didn't take long for him find a replacement -- Watkins' talented Nickelcreek bandmate, Chris Thile. And while Thile is a dynamite showman who is still learning the ropes of wit and wondrous storytelling in the world of Lake Wobegon, you get the distinct impression that maybe Watkins could have upended Thile in pure relatability. She has a natural demeanor with her audience, who fawn over her every flick of the wrist, every note  from her effortless voice -- indeed, it's her voice that acts as a siren call that attracts longtime fans from far and wide. 

But as it stands, Sara is happy to keep touring the country in support of her latest album Young In All The Wrong Ways, her third solo record. Traveling to St. Louis with two talented multi-instrumentalists in tow, the show was an intimate affair for long time lovers of Watkins' signature sound. She opened the set with "You and Me," singing, "I remember the night / I remember the sound." It may have been the quintessential song to being her performance While the drummer easily handled rhythm and backup harmonies, as well as modest bass lines on a keyboard, he had a great time doing it. The guitar player switched from archtop to solid body to electric and gave nuance to the gravitas of Watkins' singing voice. And from a tiny songbird like Watkins, that gravitas came in waves. From songs like "Move Me" to others like "Say So." For her rendition of the Nickelcreek song "Anthony," Watkins encouraged the packed crowd to whistle along at certain intervals and they did so enthusiastically. She returned for one encore, even though the crowd in the balcony came off as though they were there for a dinner party instead of a night of quiet introspection and a reverence for a great performer. But angry fans made their frustrations heard and the  chatty crowd settled down. One thing is for certain, St. Louis takes its bluegrass seriously. 

The effect of Watkins' own multi-instrumentalism was enchanting itself, as she moved fluidly from guitar to ukulele, her lustrous voice never faltering or losing its footing. Indeed, there were times when it seemed like she was unsure of herself on stage, but that really was just her modest demeanor materializing -- she's a showman for sure, but not a showboat and she lets her talent speak for itself. And if you're not listening to Watkins' universal talent, then you're listening to the wrong radio. 

Opener Liz Longley warmed up the crowd with a dynamic solo set that featured music from her latest album, Weightless. A longtime singer-songwriter in her own right, Longley has made a fast name for herself by tirelessly working the performance circuit and connecting with fans across the country. The Berklee trained musician relies on deft fingerpicking skills and award-winning songwriting prowess to make her brief set also one to remember. 

 Click the image below to see all the photos from the evening's performances.

Sara Watkins (with Liz Longley) at the Old Rock House, January 28, 2017

 

Tortoise is a band to whom I have listened for what feels like forever, although I have done so in fits and starts. First I made enthusiastic, frequent-enough attempts to immerse myself in their catalogue, to let it wash over me for a week or so at a time, beach-like, with the hope of returning to the real world like someone back from vacation with shells braided into their hair, eager to both invite and answer questions. Then, alternately, years will go by during which I only listen to the 1998 album TNT on a biannual basis for some truly random reasons, like a New Yorker article will mention H.L. Mencken, reminding me of the song "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men."  

Over this nearly twenty-year period of well-meaning interest followed by semi-forgetfulness, I have come to think about Tortoise in the same way that I regard the US Senate. They are an institution--one for which I'm grateful and to which I grant a deep respect, even when I can't say that I love everything they've done nor that I know a whole lot about most of the members. Even so, I have somehow failed to ever see Tortoise play live. Thus, for the purposes of this review, I have nothing against which to compare them, performance-wise, despite their quarter-century career, and I'm also going to be somewhere between shaky and flaky when it comes to song titles. 

The concert was part of the Art of Live Festival which took place throughout the weekend at the Old Rock House, the Ready Room, and Off Broadway. On Thursday night, with an ice storm waiting in the wings, the St. Louis three-piece Hope & Therapy opened the show at the Old Rock House, constructing a scaffold of tight, angular rhythms over which the voice of singer and keyboardist Hope Gaines ascended to almost Icarus-level heights. Gaines demonstrated a compelling confidence and poise, but there were an equal number of moments when the sheer sonic quality of her singing was almost too pure and ultimately at odds with the kind of mutual identification that I'm looking for in a live performance: a shared sense that we're here, together, because it fills some kind of lack, absence, or deficiency; that we come together not as masters, but as misfits. 

Tortoise, too, risked being too good, especially given the heightened sense of focus and restraint on last year's album The Catastrophist, from which they drew liberally for their set. Throughout the night, I found myself impressed with them in the same way that I am when I see a time-lapse video of a car being built in a factory. I marveled at the efficiency with which their complex tonal landscapes took shape--at musical relationships so refined and skills so in sync that no member ever seemed to look to another for a cue or a count. 

At the same time, perhaps precisely because Tortoise operates within no established genre or movement, a sense of uncertainty may always be at the core of my relationship to them. Even on those tracks into which they seem absolutely locked, the fact that their rules are solely their own allows room for anything to happen. This was the case with the synth-heavy "Gesceap," a standout from The Catastrophist and one of at least a few songs on the album that remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog in the best possible way. That Tortoise's performance was less like an off-the-rails adventure and more like a guided tour was to their credit. For artists to whom an audience would give a hall pass for going rogue without a moment's hesitation, the band's willingness to play it cool and stick to the script is a testament to the script itself. Their career-spanning set felt neither forced, flat or fan-service. Rather, the seamlessness with which the songs interlocked recalled to me again the idea of a manufacturing infrastructure or better yet a kind of supply chain--one which they've developed over time and which needs only minimal maintenance. (The Castrophist, for example, came after a nearly seven-year gap between albums.) 

I worry that so much imagery of industry and automation here implies that Tortoise came across as mechanical, or that they weren't playing music so much as plying a trade. That was not at all the case. I found myself unexpectedly swaying to the music, giving way to it. I lost track of time without ever forgetting it was there. For five almost exorbitantly skilled musicians--switching between instrument duties, frequently deploying two drum kits, engaging as many machines as you could imagine onstage--they remained deeply committed to the audience, listening as much to each other as they did to our own rapt silence. 

 

Click below to see more of Doug Tull's photos of the evening's performances.

Tortoise (with Hope & Therapy) at the Old Rock House, January 12, 2016

Stay Involved on Social Media