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Craig Finn At Mercury Lounge, 930p, Wenesday, February 29th, 2012 Reviewed

Craig Finn reminds me of an easy going Bruce Springsteen. A storyteller, an explainer, a rhetorician, an actor, a wiseguy, a leader, a preacher, and a charlatan. But he wears the frames well, and in Craigs easy going demeanor Wednesday night, he seemed well enough off in his surroundings to get us there.

But he didn't.

The leader of Hold Steady's  Clear Heart Full Eyes is my fave album of 2012, a collection of successful takes on religion and its maladies. But despite an excellent backing band, Some Guns, in the tiny confines of the Mercury Lounge, he misjudged his song placement, underplayed his hand, and seemed unwilling or unable to take us there.

It was around midnight when I began really wonder what Craig thought he was doing, "Sara ,I'm Surrounded", "Jeremiah's Blues" and "Dude from St. Paul" were three unknown sung just before a slow one that I began to have serious doubts he was gonna get the night straightned out. A slow set became a draaaaagy set, and finally, on a less than funny "Dude", with the usual obsequious audience titters to bring it along, I wished I was anywhere else.

The over long knocking on 90 minute set was filled with songs from the new album, new songs and a cover. And the quality of songs was remarkably consistent. A new one "Once You Roll Over" included the funniest line and a perfect version of how Finn adds God to life; "She looked like Mary Magdalena and came on like Peter, denying me three times before dawn". That's about as witty a line as you'll ever hear by anyone. And the song is a keeper, but the enerygy level is off.

Craig's been on the road for a month but he still seems uncomfortable with these songs. Mostly, the recorded versions are better than the live versions, though a "Balcony" with an extended end is an exception and the new song (he named the band after it) "Some Guns" is as good as it gets.

And, while the songs sound uncomfortable, like a new sofa you can't adjust to, the between song patter sounds studied and schticky, though again with an exception, his intro to "New Friend Jesus" is very funny. When Finn is on his game he can segue between his songs and his conversation so you are not sure where one starts and the other finishes. But when he isn't, he seems to be the guy the at the party who is trying too hard to hold a conversation.

Before "Friend", Finn noted "Most of you know I've prayed to Jesus for a long time, maybe I should pray to Jay-Z for a year. And later, he builds "Western Pier" to "Jesus is in charge and kind and just". Christianity is his elephant in his room and though Finn doesn't really preach, there is that of the shaman in him. Only it wasn't there last night.

It is hard to dismiss a set in which you loved virtually every song, but hard or not, this wasn't a very good set.

Grade: B

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