Craig Finn and the Uptown Controllers…

…with Laura Stevenson, at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds

Craig Finn comes on stage dressed all in black: trousers, untucked shirt, jacket and baseball cap. His glasses are large, his face seems almost glum and hard to read: what’s he thinking in there? He launches straight into a song without preamble, making emphatic mime movements as he sings, as if plucking something from the air then releasing it.

Finn may be an unlikely rock star, but that face isn’t inscrutable: it’s the face of a man in control, a man concentrating totally on his music, a man reading his own life and perhaps yours, too.

Two, perhaps three, numbers in he stops to chat, saying this is his first visit to the Brudenell in Leeds. You and me both, Craig.

Finn used to front the American rock band The Hold Steady, and occasionally he still does. Tonight, though, is all about his solo career comprising four albums, with the latest being I Need A New War.

Finn, we are soon reminded, is the ultimate entertainer, who operates in many contradictory modes at the same time: sombre and serious, hesitant and emphatic, and kind of stand-up funny. Mostly he is just a great teller of rock stories, sometimes in a half-mumble that with passion swells to a louder register. Sometimes those stories are sad and about messed up lives or poor choices; sometimes they are adult reflections of teenage life; more than a few are an uplifting blast.

What you get with Finn is sentiment, wit, a clear eye, a beery eye, and more than a smudge of Catholicism.

And while he might look serious as he comes on, he is fun too, and always engaging to watch, holding the stage with his storytelling, making a range of enjoyably eccentric movements, occasionally picking up a guitar, mostly not.

For this tour he has a five-piece band, the Uptown Controllers, including new boy Nelson Deveraux on sax/flute and clarinet. This is only Nelson’s fourth show with the band, not that you’d guess that from his supremely confident playing. This great band (keyboards, drums, bass, guitars and Nelson) slows for the gentle moments, then turns the dial up to the rouse-the-hell-out-of-this-ceiling setting.

I can’t give a full list of songs as I was watching, not reviewing. But those I spot include Maggie I’ve Been Searching For Our Son, Christine, A Bathtub In The Kitchen and Grant At Galena.

Our family group – three-fifths of a whole Cole – have fingers crossed for God In Chicago, and here it is, that beautiful and dislocated short story whose meaning remains elusive: a funeral, a bequeathed container wrapped in newspaper, a drug deal with an unloved old schoolmate, a drive to Chicago, a night of love (“We all want the same things”).

This song opens with stately piano and Finn speaks the lyrics, before singing half-way through, helped by support act Laura Stevenson.

God In Chicago was signalled as the last song, but Finn and his Controllers burst straight into a closing blast of Ninety Bucks, with its rousing chant.

We drive home with a headful of Finn, tired, misled by the sat-nav, but happy.

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