“Since I’m the opening act,” Craig Finn muttered one song into his solo set Monday night with the Heartless Bastards at First Avenue, “this is the part of the show where I usually introduce myself. I don't want to jump to inclusions, but I think it's safe to assume we can skip that part.”
The audience could have been forgiven if it didn’t fully recognize Finn as the Edina-reared, Brooklyn-based frontman of the Hold Steady on Monday. Not only did he perform without his usual band, he used an acoustic guitar all night instead of electric and only played two lesser-known THS songs (“Certain Songs” and "Modesto Is Not That Sweet"). The rest of his 40-minute set was a hodgepodge of four tunes from his second solo album, “Faith in the Future” (due out Sept. 11), plus he plucked out “Western Pier” from his first solo disc and went way back to “Mission Viejo,” a nugget by his first band, Lifter Puller. For the latter, he brought out his old bandmate Steve Barone and made a very interesting hint of a possible reunion set later this week.
“If you like that song, and you like Lifter Puller, then you'll probably want to go see Dillinger Four on Saturday,” he said. “That's all I'm saying. Steve will be there too.”
(Note the “surprise special guests” promised on the poster for D4’s Fourth of July block party outside the Triple Rock.)
Backed by guitarist Arun Bali of New Jersey band Saves the Day for the rest of the set -- plus Heartless Bastards drummer Dave Colvin and bassist/pedal-steel-player Jesse Ebaugh for the last few songs – Finn made a strong case for the new songs, which sound more hushed and melancholy and yet more melodic than the stuff off 2012’s “Clear Heart Full Eyes.” The first single “Newmyer’s Roof” took on an epic vibe with Colvin’s rolling mallet drumming and Bali's crescendoing guitar work. Finn introduced “Extras” as his one and only song about touring (sample line: “Take comfort in the rituals”). He then ended the set all by his lonesome with an especially intimate, evocative and troubled one called “Dennis and Billy.” Sorry Craig, we know you too well to know that song wasn’t really about two guys named Dennis and Billy.
The Heartless Bastards, by contrast, went full-on electric for nearly two hours straight, maintaining a tight-ship precision and a battleship-like crest the whole while. This is straight up one of the best no-frills rock bands on the road nowadays, with one of the most compelling, goosebump-inducing frontwomen of modern times, Erika Wennerstrom. She has a cool demeanor but never seems flashy. She has a burly deep bellow and lovely high warble but never overextends her voice in a trite TV music competition sort of way. And after 20 years fronting the band through different incarnations, she now has has amassed a hell of a lot of fine songs.
Wennerstrom and her Austin, Texas-based quartet (with an extra backup singer/keyboardist on tour) also made a strong case for their latest album, “The Restless Ones,” starting with the storm-approaching vibe in the second song of the night, “Gates of Dawn.” While the new album has some enticingly heavy moments, the softer parts played out beautifully live, especially in the slow-burning “Journey” and the “Pocket Full of Thirst” – both nice additions to Wennerstrom’s ongoing lyrical theme of getting lost to find your way.
The mellower material was more than balanced by the older tunes that made up the rest of the set, including fan favorites "Gotta Have Rock 'n' Roll," "New Resolution" and "Parted Ways." They started and ended with a couple of hard-blasting gems, the “Tomorrow Never Knows”-like blastoff “Simple Feeling” and the encore’s Zeppelin-style psychedelic blues jam “Nothing Seems the Same.” As the latter tune ended, Wennerstrom’s bandmates exited with their instruments still reverberating on stage and left the singer up there alone to finish the set with the new album’s haunting closer “Tristessa.” It was the second time that night when one person playing alone proved as powerful as anything else.