The fictional town of Dillon, Texas, has colored my worldview for the past month, as I've binge-watched my way through nearly the entire Friday Night Lights television series. I would love to use this space to write about my endless admiration for Coach Taylor, or the many times I've cried while watching (mostly scenes with Matt Saracen), or Riggins' Rigs, or Crucifictorious, or how perfect-looking Minka Kelly is. I mention the show instead because my journey to the final episodes coincided last weekend with the arrival in Kansas City of Craig Finn, who has titled his debut solo album Clear Heart Full Eyes — a transposed reference to FNL.
As the leader of the bookish bar-rock act the Hold Steady, Craig Finn emerged in the '00s as one of the most gifted lyricists in rock, a poet-preacher chronicling the seedy edges of modern Midwestern life. The characters in his story-songs are loners, losers and lapsed Catholics — people who hang around, go nowhere, get dumped, party too much, get busted. Finn recorded Clear Heart with a band assembled in Austin, Texas, and it sounds very much like a Hold Steady record, minus the classic-rock crunch, plus some pedal steels and acoustic guitars.
Finn is not just a musical hero of mine but a literary one, too, and the prospect of seeing him up close at a place like RecordBar on a Saturday night was all kinds of thrilling. The plan was to take it easy Friday night and conserve energy for the show Saturday. But then I started drinking and ended up at RecordBar Friday night, also. I caught three local bands I've been meaning to check out: the Sawyers (dusty alt-country), John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons (upbeat roots-pop), and Katy and Go-Go (a guitar-drums blues duo; Go-Go's kick drum had a picture of his own face on it). All put on fine shows, and someday soon I will write about them in more depth. Unfortunately, a point came where I sidled up to the bar, and the words "Overholt in a glass" flew out of my mouth, and then that happened again, and then I was at Buzzard Beach, and then it was the next day, and I was groaning and hurting and cold.
Like a character in one of Finn's songs, I sought relief in the disease. Around 7 p.m., I hauled my sore bones up to Harling's, where I battled my bourbon hangover with Irish whiskey. Over time, my hands stopped shaking. Soon, I was half-drunk again. On to the show!
It was fantastic. The band — a five-piece, including Finn — had played only, like, six shows, but the musicians were vibrant and tight. Finn gave a shout-out to RecordBar owner Steve Tulipana, whom he said he has known for years. He sometimes did a VH1 Storytellers type of thing, where he'd tell us what the song was about before playing it. ("No Future" — which goes Bed sheets for curtains/The devil's a person/I met him at the Riverside Perkins — is about an actual Perkins restaurant in the Twin Cities where people would hang out after the bars closed, and this makes me love the song even more.)
He closed the set with "Not Much Left of Us," a tender song that makes my heart hurt: When I walked by the park, you were holding his hand/Dropped it like it was hot to the touch/There's not much left of us. The band exited the stage, and the lights went dark-red, which seemed to leave open the possibility of an encore. But encores are awkward at small clubs like RecordBar, and eventually the bright-yellow lights came up. The band hung around after the show, though, and if you wanted to talk to Craig Finn, you could have. Not a bad Saturday night in the Midwest.