It’s a cold but clear midweek night in the capital. The only thing for it is to join the choir for tonight’s acoustic hymnal session with Brian Fallon. Up first, however, is The Hold Steady frontman, Craig Finn, ready to take us on an intimate journey.
An unassuming character, Finn ambles on to the middle of the stage like someone’s dad who has got himself lost. At 47, wearing a baseball cap and thick-rimmed glasses, this mild-mannered middle-aged maestro arrives armed with a truckload of tales to tell. Every song in this 45-minute set list is prefaced with stories from his hometown of Minnesota, his life in New York and the various heartbreaks and traumas which contribute to his songwriting muscle.
With a deadpan, yet warm vocal delivery, Finn gives us a glimpse at the ordinary extraordinary lives of his characters – some real, some dramatized. He offers light and shade between songs. This may be an acoustic show but he amps up the volume when it’s required.
He casually recounts the tragic backstory to Newmyer’s Roof (watching the twin towers fall while sipping some beers). Hilariously, we learn the strict rules of being a true punk rocker from Punk Is Not a Fair Fight and end with a beautiful tribute to the late Scott Hutchison with Frightened Rabbit’s Head Rolls Off.
The beauty of it being all about the acoustic guitar tonight is the quick turnover on stage. Which is just as well because the music being played in the break is truly awful.
Billing the night as “Songs From The Hymnal”, Fallon, the Gaslight Anthem’s frontman, launches straight into his band’s crowd favourite National Anthem. The vocal delivery is strong; always better witnessed live than from Youtube videos where they often seem off key. Against a sparse backdrop of a starry rooftop, it’s him and his guitar with a short stint on the piano, which is a relatively new sight for long term fans of his work.
Across the following hour and a half, he treats us to a selection of hits and deep cuts from his various projects. Every number is delivered with just the right amount of power and grace.
He seems a little uneasy at times, however, up there on his own. Unlike Finn, the preambles to each song feel like the nervous rambling of someone not quite comfortable yet being the centre of attention. There are often remarks made to an unseen presence to the side of the stage. The crowd laughs anyway and the songs, for the most part, keep an enraptured Edinburgh crowd on side.
Songs like Ladykiller and Painkillers feel timeless, while his up-tempo rockers (Forget Me Not) become toe-tapping sing-a-longs. The blue collar, haunting ballads are eaten up by a diverse audience made up of rockabilly punks, middle-aged men and a growing mainstream crowd.
The show was initially planned for the Queen’s Hall before demand saw it upgraded to the fancier Usher Hall. Fallon himself seems a little in awe of the surroundings, perhaps marking a quick step up in his expectations of where this solo malarkey might take him.
On show closer, Smoke, he sings of hearts and daggers, black clouds and darkened insides, which might feel a little intense if not for the unifying sound of the audience chanting every word back.
Hymnal? Seems about right as this choir joyfully sings the night away.