As Twitter's SetTimeDiva will tell you, start times are a tricky thing. Few venues actually publicize the start times of each band performing, most provide some indication of when the first band will begin, and others just prefer you to show up at 7pm and start drinking with no real idea of when the bands might go on. Kansas City's Record Bar falls into the middle category, providing a start time that is generally reliable. That's how I got burned.
The Record Bar's website listed a 10pm start time for Craig Finn with no other performers on the bill. Being the punctual sort (my wife would insist that I'm actually habitually early), I hurried us out the door a bit before 9:30 for the two-mile drive to the club. When we stepped out of the car moments later, I heard live music emanating from the club, and my poor OCD heart sank. By the time we got inside, unpublicized (at least by the Record Bar) opener Mount Moriah was several songs deep into its setlist.
Mount Moriah is a relatively new project for musical mover Heather McEntire. While she has taken the stage for years with the punk band Bellafea, Mount Moriah revels in the country roots of the Appalachian mountains that cut through her native North Carolina. Although the alt-country scene is in its fourth decade of existence, the genre seems to have come full circle. What was once an alternative reading of the Country music genre, now has stronger ties to country music's roots than the glossy pop that currently dominates the country music charts. So while Mount Moriah may be lumped into alt-country (or any associated sub-genre), the band deserves to carry the country banner without all the pedantic modifiers.
Contrary to her resume, McEntire is a quiet frontwoman. While she is capable of delivering vocals with a sneer and snarl, her voice isn't naturally big the way we think of country's golden-era leading ladies. Physically, she is tiny, with short hair barely long enough to hang into her eyes. And although McEntire's voice is her bread and butter, her guitar work on the band's quiet tracks is quite expressive. On the louder songs, however, her rhythm guitar takes a backseat to that of founding guitarist Jenks Miller. For this tour, the duo's backing band included the rhythm section of bassist Casey Toll and drummer James Wallace, but contrary to the current trend, there were no mandolins, banjos, steel guitar or gimmicks.
McEntire and her band played a long set to an audience that was receptive, if not entirely focused. Patrons were constantly jostling the crowd as they made their way to and from the bar, or had conversations at volumes that they had explained to their children were not acceptable "inside voices" only hours ago. It only got worse when this crowd understood the break between acts as a call to stampede toward the stage – holding mixed drinks above their (and everyone else's) heads – in an attempt to slide their way to a better vantage point at the already-crowded lip of the stage. As the evening continued, and opener gave way to headliner, it became obvious that this lack of courtesy was not due to the audience's lack of interest, but rather a lack of practice – they had forgotten entirely how to go out to a nightclub, drink without getting drunk, or behave themselves when a performer is on stage.
While I internally groused and grumped (as I tend to do), roadies and band members prepared the stage for the evening's headliner. At 10:31, and very much on no schedule at all, Craig Finn walked on stage to cheers and hoots from the celebratory audience. Despite spending his entire adult life in punk bands, Finn would never be fingered as a frontman. The 41-year-old musician is frumpy, a bit jowly, and balding. He's perfect for a Woody Allen film, but he's no one's idea of a rock god. And yet, somehow, the less he resembles Roger Daltrey or Robert Plant, the more his fans embrace him. Any attempt at posturing would be laughable, so instead, Finn has built a career that embraces the underdog, the outsider, and (especially) the burn out. His lyrics are descriptive, witty, and wry. Finn smiles to himself as he sings them, nodding and grinning to audience members when they chuckle, revealing that they're in on the joke as well. But he'd certainly do it even if the audiences didn't come at all. In fact, this need to express himself is what started this tour in motion.
While I'd like to avoid rehashing history, some background is necessary. Two years ago Craig Finn's full time band, The Hold Steady, went on hiatus. The recently divorced Finn suddenly found himself with time – too much time, it seems. While on head-clearing vacations from his head-clouding excursions, songs started to take shape, and soon he was calling friend and producer Mike McCarthy to record an album. McCarthy suggested Finn come down to Austin, and promised that he would have a band waiting for him. Finn clicked with his new backing band (a band he has since dubbed "Some Guns" after a track that didn't make it to the album), and his solo debut was recorded quickly, and, largely, live. This album forgoes the epic explosions of The Hold Steady – those are written by Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler – and instead focuses on Finn's strengths as a storyteller. Some Guns merely support those stories.
Finn begin his set by greeting his audience, asking how everyone was doing, and then, with great enthusiasm, asking if the crowd was ready to be depressed by his set. While everyone (including Finn) chuckled at the notion, Finn's set is hardly celebratory. Even the upbeat tracks tell dark tales of deeds done and regretted, situations that got out of control, and people unable to escape the consequences of both. This, of course, is riveting. To up the ante, Finn provided lengthy introductions to most of the songs in his set, filling in the vagaries that puzzle the obsessed listener. I've always thought that Finn's lyrics are a bit fantastic, a bit too exaggerated to be true, but time and time again, songs were introduced with details pinning their subjects to specific time and place. For me, this literary value of the set was destined to outshine the musical one.
While the songs Finn penned for the album were acoustic affairs that could have taken on any flavour, his arrival in Austin determined which spices and hues would be dominate. The pedal steel guitar of Ricky Ray Jackson was a defining presence during the first five songs in the set, and the twangy leads of James Stevens inescapable. While the rhythm section of bassist Alex Livingstone and drummer Falcon Valdez skittered about (quite pleasantly) sampling various flavours, the classic country root fifth walking bass line made more than one appearance.
After nine songs, Finn slowly dismissed his band, performing three unreleased songs without the benefit of his cohorts. While lyrically these songs weren't any different from others in his set, the starkness of their presentation made them seem much lonelier, and Finn much more frail. The vignette "Going to a Show" was a particularly relevant portrayal of the ageing crowds still attending live concerts at dirty late night bars. Unfortunately during these intimate moments, the crowd grew particularly restless, tainting the familiarity of the moment.
After the break, the band returned for another handful of songs, but no encore despite the robust calls from an audience that knew how to be loud. By the time the amps were powered off, Finn had performed all 11 songs from his album, six unreleased tracks, curiously no covers, and notably no Hold Steady songs. It's that last omission that disappointed many of the revellers, though it shouldn't have come as a surprise – Finn has built his career by ignoring the music industry's best advice.