Review | Craig Finn of The Hold Steady at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea: 'This is gig-going as an act of communion'

​For the past 20 years or so, The Hold Steady have been among the pre-eminent chroniclers of blue-collar America.
Craig Finn, with support act Scott Lavene joining him on keys, at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea. Picture by Paul WindsorCraig Finn, with support act Scott Lavene joining him on keys, at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea. Picture by Paul Windsor
Craig Finn, with support act Scott Lavene joining him on keys, at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea. Picture by Paul Windsor

​Sounding like The Beats if they’d been weaned on rock’n’roll instead of jazz, they bring a lyricism and romanticism to the loves, lives and thwarted ambitions of the underclass, and they have built a sizable cult following here in the UK while doing so.

Alongside the band, frontman Craig Finn has also run a solo career for the past decade.

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Given that he is the primary lyricist of The Hold Steady it’s no surprise that his solo material doesn’t fall far from the band’s tree. There are plenty of the densely worded narratives and acutely observed storytelling that his fans love. In fact, the mode of delivery makes it all the more easy to actually hear those lyrics.

The gig is mostly just Finn and his guitar. The atmosphere is often more relaxed and reflective than his band’s shows (it’s certainly a less sweaty affair than Hold Steady gigs I’ve been to...), he is an entertaining raconteur, as he frequently proves here between songs.

Along the way we get songs from across his solo output, plus several new tracks, and one Hold Steady number – Magazines – which he introduces by way of telling us he wrote it immediately after going home from being dumped by his then-girlfriend over dinner in a restaurant, “it’s not a nice song, but it is a good song...” And he’s not wrong.

There is, however, a positive coda to this – they got back together and have remained a couple ever since.

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We also hear about his love of geography and nicknames, and how Finn has lived in New York for 23 years now, and was considering writing about New Jersey, but another musician had that state tied up – he delivers the punchline with a stand-up’s comic timing: “Jon Bon Jovi.”

Partying as a means of escape has always been a common thread in Finn’s writing, but he tells us that he now writes more about hangovers, “both personal and geopolitical”. One such devastating story is Newmyer’s Roof – the friend’s apartment block from where he watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11.

While many of the characters in Finn’s songs don’t get happy endings, Tangle Town is about the redemptive power of love, and it is beautiful.

Most of the songs are played on a little Spanish guitar that Hold Steady guitarist Steve Selvidge gifted him – and which, when Finn sat down to write on it, he discovered that “the songs poured out of him.”

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The notable exception is God In Chicago, where Finn puts the guitar down and support act Scott Lavene comes out to play keys. Apparently he’s never played it live like this, but it is haunting and shattering. ​​

At the end of the set Finn apologises for playing so many “sad songs”, but there’s something cathartic, and yes, uplifting, in sharing this experience in a room with others. Given that religion is another common theme for Finn, it’s perhaps fitting that he feels this is a form of communion.

No apology is needed, though.

It’s quieter than many of the gigs I’ve been to of late, but no less powerful for it being channeled through one man and his acoustic instead of a wall of amps.