Written by Chad Taylor
Bonne Finken has arrived.
That might sound like a strange thing to say about the winner of Cityview's Best Local Musician award for 2014, but it's the truth.
Finken's first two albums—good in their own right—exhibit a kind of proto-Finken; the first relies too heavily on the directions of others, and the second is a schizophrenic jumble of ideas. Both albums, as well as Finken's "Live at the Loft," teased flashes of her potential, but the album release show for “FairyTales/LoveAffairs” (our review here) at the Temple for the Performing Arts this past week was her coming out party.
For the first time in her career, Finken completely followed the song of her own siren. For the first time in her career, we can say that we've heard Finken's fully-realized sound. And it's beautiful.
After playing with a revolving door of musicians for most of her career, Finken has more or less settled on one lineup from here on. Jon Locker continues to hold down the low end, and if he's not the best bassist in the city, he's at least in the photo. He's joined in rhythm by timekeeper Russ Tomlinson, who provides Finken with more of a rock edge to her music than she's had in the past, and who's vocals on “Gone” are preferable to those on the album.
Christine Parmerlee supplied Finken with back-up vocals and show producer Pat Williams provided an assist to the musicians in the form of a turntable and mac, but maybe the most inspired move Finken has made with her band is the addition of Michael Pfaff.
Trained at the New England Conservatory, the current Snacks/former Dirty Little Rabbits keyboardist might just be the most underrated musician in the city. In the Collective, Pfaff spreads his talent across three instruments, and does them all well. His keyboard work (once again, “Gone” is a great example) was excellent across the board, and he added a great deal of depth and warmth to the songs with the xylophone. If she can hang on to him, Pfaff's versatility, talent and personality will make him the second most valuable member of Finken's crew, behind The Woman herself.
Midway through the set, Finken rolled out her special guest, guitarist Seth Hedquist. Hedquist has been lending his considerable talent to bands around the city for a while now, and he and Finken have a long, comfortable working relationship. The pair took the stage alone for an acoustic break in the middle of an otherwise production-heavy set, and it was an excellently timed change of pace.
The show's flaws were all minor. Finken was clearly more nervous than I'd ever seen her before, and between songs her banter sounded shaky and rushed; Finken and Hedquist's cover of Imagine Dragons' “Radioactive” only served to throw the absurdity inherent in the song's lyrics into harsh light; Parmerlee's vocals were often overpowered by everything else that was going on.
The biggest trip-up of the night came during the lead in to (I assume) “Step Back Baby," after Headquist had left the stage and the rest of the band returned. Places were taken, and the band waited for Williams' tracked lead-in. But nothing came. After an awkward minute, the DJ realized that he needed to restart his computer.
However, one of the great advantages of having talented musicians playing live instruments is the ability to improvise. And, as Williams restarted his software, Locker announced “let's get Seth back!” Hedquist joined the band, and Finken launched into an impromptu cover of Led Zeppelin's “Whole Lotta Love," which wound up being one of the show's highlights. Shortly thereafter, Williams was ready to go, and “Step Back Baby” thundered over the audience while the music video played in the background.
Everything about “FairyTales/LoveAffairs”—the album, the show, the experience—is a success. It's the best Finken has ever sounded, and it's the truest she's ever been to herself. The show was grand, theatrical, beautiful and expertly timed and produced. The songs that make up the album (Finken deserves possibly her biggest round of applause for the album arrangement) showcase everything in Finken's bag from synth-pop dance hits to gut-wrenching ballads, and this “permanent” band line-up breathed fresh life into Finken's previous work as well.
Though this is a pop album, it shouldn't be taken to mean that Finken is—has always been—a pop musician. Finken has bristled at the idea of being pigeonholed into any one genre, and when you see her perform, it's easy to see why. This album went pop, because that's where the songs took her. The next album might be bluesier. Or it might have more rock influence. But in the end, it probably won't matter much.
Because Des Moines' Best Local Musician has arrived, and she's finally shown everyone that the one thing she does best of all, is Bonne Finken.