Brian Fallon and Craig Finn brought their acoustic storytelling to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
Songs from the Hymnal – a 14-stop tour featuring Brian Fallon (of The Gaslight Anthem) and Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady) – rolled into DC last Thursday night. The tour calendar indicates this was the only stop in an actual house of religion, which gave the concert an extra lift. But on a textual reading, that name derives more from each songwriters’ invocation of faith, whether in direct religious themes, or in the idea of a faith that can exist between individuals and in shared moments. On a Hold Steady song from 2010, “Heaven Is Whenever”, Craig Finn sang, “Heaven is whenever we can get together, Sit down on your floor, and listen to your records.” A concert can be both a communion and a covenant. This night held elements of each.
Craig Finn played first, bringing the audience into his world of people frequently down on their luck, only half-aware of it, and somehow doing their best to both climb both up and down their ladders. “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son,” from 2015’s Faith In The Future led things off, before going back into the vaults for an old Hold Steady song, “Magazines”. Between songs, Finn talked the audience through his selections, explaining the name behind “Preludes”, giving the backstory to “Newmyer’s Roof”, and giving some personal history to new song, “Punk Is Not a Fair Fight”. He told his stories with the practiced focus of a classic storyteller: he’s told these stories time and again, but he’s sincere and cares about you caring, so the telling remains perfectly genuine.
After a brief intermission between acts, Fallon came out to wild applause. His set bounced between his two solo albums – Painkillers, and Sleepwalkers – and a handful of Gaslight Anthem songs. The between-song stories ranged from Catholic school and the ‘Devil’s Hand’ to Twitter and the other Brian Fallon, and all manner of other places in-between. There is a funny contrast here. The musician presents these earnest, evocative, emotional rock and roll songs that sound both timeless and just perfect for this exact moment. It’s, well, religious in a way that seems to be directly personal to you as well as something that exists on a different plane, that you can feel without being able to see… And then the stage performer comes off like your funny best friend. It’s part of what makes Fallon’s shows so good (unless you don’t like the banter – then you’re out of luck).
I don’t mean to take away from the music by talking about the storytelling. Fallon moved between the acoustic guitar and the piano with ease, bringing the crowd along on songs of loves and lives lost, the ways that we help (and are helped by) each other, and on the power of songs themselves (the great Gaslight Anthem song, “Handwritten”). Fallon could have played twice as many songs and held this audience’s attention without breaking a sweat. Maybe next time.
The Hold Steady and The Gaslight Anthem/Fallon solo are two of the acts I’ve seen the most live; probably 10 shows in combination. They excel on the music, but they thrive on the lyrics. It’s nothing new to note Finn’s in-depth character studies and world building, or Fallon’s invocation of a feeling, a time, an emotion. But hearing them in this way, stripped of the backing bands and the antic energy and the volume of their full-band shows, provides a new showcase for the lyrics (as well as the voices). It would be disservice to say these are refined versions of the songs – they are instead variations on strong songs – but the storytelling came to the forefront last Thursday night, as our congregation listened intently to the songs from the hymnal.
SET LIST – Craig Finn:
Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son
Punk Is Not a Fair Fight
SET LIST – Brian Fallon:
Forget Me Not
She Loves You
My Name Is the Night (Color Me Black)
A Wonderful Life