Live Review, 2/21/12: The Hold Steady's Craig Finn Leads a Good, Depressing Time at Bottom of the Hill

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Craig Finn at Bottom of the Hill last night.

Craig Finn
Sad Baby Wolf
Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012
Bottom of the Hill / Noise Pop 20th Anniversary Opening Night

Better than: Seeing The Hold Steady.

Ask a local, or a bring a notebook with you to a show, and they'll tell you: Noise Pop is as much about discovering new music as it is about venue-hopping or seeing intimate sets with major acts. Last night's lineup at Bottom of the Hill was no different. Every act on the bill probably wasn't familiar to all (though if you don't know Craig Finn by now, you're not paying attention), but the show offered the kinds of pleasant surprises that Noise Pop has become known for.

Whether you know Craig Finn or not, he wins over people within moments of entering a stage. It's fitting he shared the opening night of Noise Pop with The Flaming Lips -- each creates a show as engaging as you'll find, but through directly opposite means. What Finn lacks in confetti, dancing mascots and bullhorns, he makes up with nearly unparalleled levels of storytelling, energy, and audience engagement. His signature arm-flailing and emphatic glares haven't gone anywhere, even if his band's keyboards and accordions were left at home.

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Finn doesn't sugarcoat anything. "We're going to have a really good time tonight," Finn said at the start of the set, "especially if you like to be depressed. We're going to be bummed out." So he acts as live liner notes throughout, constantly providing insight into the meanings behind his songs and his relationship with them. You don't just hear Finn perform "Rented Room," you hear how it's a song about approaching middle age and having to re-enter the world of roommates after a divorce (of living with roommates post-college, Finn says: "You still crush brews, but now it sucks"). You'll also hear that it freaks him out a bit that it's his mother's favorite track on the album ("You know this is me, Mom?").

Clear Hearts, Full Eyes, his first solo album, takes Finn in musical directions neither The Hold Steady or Lifter Puller ever pursued. Despite whatever feelings people have for the actual album, onstage, it presents the opportunity to take an audience all over the place both musically and emotionally.

Finn's backing band (he calls them Some Guns, so they'll have a proper theme song like Minor Threat or The Monkees) showcased technical abilities far surpassing what I've seen from The Hold Steady. That band makes their name on high energy, Springsteen-aspiring rock tunes. This band played with near perfect balance, and showing an unbelievable agility at transitioning between blues, rock, country, and even Latin-influenced numbers (note the drum pattern in "When No One's Watching").

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Their set was stellar throughout, but the highest points weren't what most resembled Finn's other bands (though you can picture Franz Nicolay's mustache bouncing on "Honolulu Blues"). Rather, they were Finn's furthest departures. When he let all or most of Some Guns rest for a string of downtempo tracks -- "Jeremiah's Blues," "Those Dudes From St. Paul," and "Going To A Show" -- Finn demonstrated the height of his storytelling capabilities. The room went silent enough to hear a pin (or some barware) drop, the audience collectively leaned in, and everyone felt each heartbreak or grin-inducing joke Finn shared within his lyrics.

The night's other, "Hey, don't I know that guy?" moment came when Sad Baby Wolf took the stage. They're led by Marty Crandall -- former bassist and keyboard player for The Shins, also recognizable to fans of America's Next Top Model's first season. The band includes former Shins guitarist Neal Langford as well, so given their Shins' percentage, Sad Baby Wolf's sonic similarities weren't a surprise.

The band members noted that this was their first live show outside of Albuquerque, but they didn't play like a garage band doing its first show. Crandall's vocal work is stronger than you'd imagine, especially considering he plays in the high register occupied by Shins singer James Mercer. The songs are the same brand of layered pop, perhaps with a little less ambient folk influence, and you'll get your fair share of la-la-la's and oooh-ing all the same.

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Sad Baby Wolf

Sad Baby Wolf currently only has two tracks available on its site and hopes to release a full-length in the near future. While Finn's newest offering is a noticeable departure (and improvement) from the best bar band in America, Sad Baby Wolf feels familiar. It's as if they're trying to recreate the early quirky music that put Crandall and Langford on the map in the first place. It's not bad by any means. But, if you want to be the act that people buzz about during Noise Pop, you have to leave the audience feeling excited about a new discovery, not have them revisit a past fling.

Critic's Notebook

Liner notes highlight: "No Future" includes the lyric, "the devil's a person." Finn made sure to confirm this post-song, and relay where you could find him. "The riverside Perkins [resatuarant]. Anyone from Minneapolis knows that place is a hell hole."

Overheard: During Sad Baby Wolf's set, a superfan named Paul stood in front fist-bumping the entire time. The band even acknowledged him as their mascot for the night. Toward the end of the set, perhaps the end of the night for Paul, judging from his speech patterns, he made his best pitch for the Albuquerque Tourism Bureau: "Albuquerque motherfuckers! Cinnamon Rolls!"

Craig Finn Setlist:
Apollo Bay
Keep On Running
Balcony
Jackson
No Future
When No One's Watching
Some Guns
Western Pier
New Friend Jesus
Sarah, I'm Surrounded
Jeremiah's Blues
Those Dudes from St. Paul
Going To A Show
Honolulu Blues
Rented Room
Terrified Eyes
No Much Left

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Location Info

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Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., San Francisco, CA

Category: Music

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