by Sir John Reid Hatchporch
I've called the music of the Divine Comedy a voice in the wilderness before. Neil Hannon and company have acheived a good amount of success in Europe the last decade. After two albums of critical acclaim, they finally acheived success with 1996's galloping "Something For The Weekend," which was followed by a steady stream of fairly successful singles. Unfortunately, they haven't made so much as a peep in America, aside from those who may have heard the theme to "Father Ted" on BBC America (an instrumental version of their tune "Songs Of Love"). Perhaps that's because Neil's words and music often seem as if they come from another time and place, conjuring images of Victorian romances, perfect summers, and quaint English countrysides, while also conveying spiritual yearning and keen observations about the human condition. The music of the Divine Comedy is almost the audio equivalent of a Wes Anderson film. Deep down, songwriter Neil Hannon could almost be considered a folk singer, as his songs are so strong and haunting that they stand up by themselves. Yet the music of the Divine Comedy often sounds baroque, archaic and is often deceptively simple.
Neil and company definitely managed to keep this reputation intact with a wonderful, intimate performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles (my favorite venue, along with the House of Blues). Neil, a London Irishman, had ventured out to the states last year, finding an auspicious slot opening for Ben Folds on his fantastic "Ben Folds and a Piano" tour (chronicled on his recent "Ben Folds Live" album). For the majority of those shows, Neil merely accompanied himself with an acoustic guitar. For this show, quite surpisingly, he recruited a great, versatile trio of musicians (who looked almost scarily alike), which was thrilling to me, as it's a rarity that he even ventured out here in the first place. Bass player Simon Little shifted from electric bass to standup bass (sometimes opting to bow the latter), while guitarist Ivor Talbot played a bit of keyboard and drummer Rob Farrer played bongos, synth-celeste and vibraphone. All contributed fine backing vocals.
The two opening bands were also quite entertaining, each for different reasons. The opening act, Matt Nathanson, played a 12 string guitar (harder than anyone else I'd ever seen...I don't know how he managed to not break a string) and was accompanied by a cellist (looking like that guy who made a pterodactyl out of a pizza box in that late '80s Little Caesar's commercial....but I digress). The performance was nice, though the songs lilted a little too closely towards the sounds of Matchbox 20 for my taste. The second opener, Wes Cinningham, along with another guitarist, wore their Beatle influences on their sleeves, from their John Lennon autographed acoustic guitars, to their brief quotation of "I Will" at the beginning of one of their tunes, to a lyrical lift from "Dear Prudence" in another. They were not as confident or bubbly as the first act, but I found their songs to be a little more substantial and interesting than the opening band's, particularly a fantastic closing number titled "Kill The Thing."
As Neil Hannon took the stage, the crowd went wild...which was about the loudest the filled-to-capacity audience ever got for the duration of the evening. I've been to a lot of concerts, and I have to say this was probably the quietest, most respectful audience I've ever been a part of (which inspired Neil to declare at one point "GOD, it's f---in' quiet out there!"). It was clear from the getgo that the Los Angeles audience, which showed a remarkable diversity in both age and personality type (including a 50 something year old punk rocker), was here to listen. Much like, say, The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album, the music of the Divine Comedy is chiefly for listening reflectively, not for dancing.
When Neil opened for Ben Folds, he proved to be pretty brazen in terms of the set list, opting to open with the ultra obscure "Lucy," based on a Wordsworth poem. His strategy was no different at the Troubadour, opening with a fantastic instrumental version of "Here Comes The Flood," from the apocalyptic "Fin De Siecle" album. Since I had been told Neil would be performing with only two other folks, I was pleasantly surprised to see a full quartet on stage...and their sound was remarkably full.
This led into a breezy version of the Tom Jones-y "National Express." I thought the audience would be inspired to join in on the chorus "ba ba ba da"s, but aside from my girlfriend and myself, I didn't hear many other people. Perhaps the fantastic live recording on "A Secret History" spoiled me.
Neil had seemed to be a little lethargic, and before the next song, he declared that he had a cold, but that he wouldn't let it stop him. He mentioned how he seemingly got a cold every time he came out to L.A., and someone from the audience said something along the lines of "you English just can't handle Los Angeles." Neil was quck to retort "actually, I'm Irish," which got a great reaction from the audience. This led into a new tune called "Imaginary Friend."
"This next song is about...shagging French girls," announced Neil, as he went back to the piano and led the band through a very fine rendition of the splendid "Frog Princess." When Neil got to the line about visualizing his frog princess "beneath a shining guillotine," he paused to say "that's such a terrible line," before leading the band into the terrific rave-up that precedes the coda.
After that was the great, Beatlesque "Bad Ambassador," a fan favorite, whose opening notes received a thrilled reaction from the crowd, which was followed by the jaunty, dour "Becoming More Like Alfie," inspired by the Michael Caine film "Alfie." The performances were top notch, though Neil took it easy on some of the vocal acrobatics, due to his cold.
What followed was another pair of new songs. "Boise," a tongue in cheek song about life on the road in the U.S., had proved to be a crowd winner when Neil opened for Ben Folds a few months ago, and it proved no less entertaining here. Neil introduced the "big, emotional verse" at the end, which caused my girlfriend to say "it's beautiful!" "Oh, it's not beautiful," countered Neil, as he sang about missing his wife and child...and hating Utah.
The second new song was a nice breezy tune called "The Happy Goth," which I'd heard an acoustic version of from BBC 1. It's an odd little tune, which analyzes the motivations of a teenage girl enamored with the Gothic lifestyle, and the distance she feels from her parents. Perhaps the most memorable line is "her face is whiter than the snows of Hoth" (which had even garnered a delighted reaction from BBC radio presenter Jonathan Ross).
Afterwards, Neil commented on the quietness of the audience...and suddenly a bevy of hecklers piped up, seemingly invited by Neil's comments. Someone in the balcony replied "so Hoth?" while another muttered something about Jeff Goldblum (he may have been requesting "Gin Soaked Boy," which has a lyrical reference to Jeff's role in "The Fly") and said something about Neil being "geeky." Neil, perched at the piano, pointed to himself, looked mockingly hurt and asked rather rhetorcially, "you find *me* geeky?" The rest of the audience proved to be sympathetic.
Next up was a thrilling version of one of my personal favorite Divine Comedy tunes, the jazzy, cool "Woman Of The World," which Neil had once described as "another song where Audrey Hepburn plays a starring role." It's easy to see why, since the storyline of the song seems to closely follow that of "Breakfast At Tiffany's." Though the orchestra from the record was obviously missing, the band managed to do the song justice and sounded remarkably full. Of particular note was the Ivor Talbot's accomplished solo. Unfortunately, the Heineken Neil had been nursing throughout the set apparently began kicking in, as he flubbed a few words in the bridge. "I think I'm a little drunk," declared Neil, later, "on beer and aspirin."
After this was another new tune, and a gorgeous one at that. Hinged on a keyboard sound not unlike the groaning Farfisa organ sound of bands like The Doors, Neil went into an impromptu verse of Weill and Brecht's "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)" which received some cheers from the audience. But then he launched into the song proper, "Our Mutual Friend," a sad, ruminative tale about meeting and falling in love with a girl in a pub. In typical Neil Hannon fashion, the song ends with a twist, reminiscent of songs like "Something For The Weekend" and "If..." It was one of the absolute highlights of the evening.
When Neil announced the next tune would be "Perfect Lovesong," it got a great reaction from the audience. The performance itself was quite wonderful, but the highlight may have been when a roadie appeared on stage in the middle simply to move Ivor's capo over one fret for the key change! I applauded him and he just shrugged. After this was another new song, "Leaving Home," which, to my ears, was not as memorable as the other new tunes.
Another song that received a great reaction from the audience was "Songs Of Love," a lovely baroque pop song. Neil led the band through a very tasteful, sparse arrangement, sans piano. When it came to the solo, Neil stood at the middle mic and then suddenly declared "oh, I forgot to play the solo!" He ran over to the keyboard and said "let's do that bit over again," launching seamlessly into the memorably baroque solo, and getting a warm reaction from the audience. After the solo, instead of merely resmuing singing the song at the keyboard (which had a mic in front of it), he ran back to the mic in center stage. Bizarre!
Next was a stripped down version of the scathing "Generation Sex," which also featured fine guitar work from the Ivor Talbot. It led absolutely seamlessly into the Radiohead-ish "Regeneration," the title cut from Neil's 2001 offering. "Regeneration" is a harrowing tune...one would be forgiven for thinking its lyrics were about the events of September 11th if one didn't know it was released six months prior to that tragedy. And with this, Neil closed the first set on an apocalyptic note.
After much applause and rhythmic clapping, Neil and the gang emerged back on stage and launched into the fabulously over the top "A Drinking Song," the only nod to anything pre-"Casanova" thus far in the show. When Neil got to the hysterical spoken word section in the bridge, Ivor changed the tone on the synth he was playing and took the flanging off. Neil paused and said "make it go 'ssssss' again," to which Ivor acquiesced. Neil struggled to find words to describe the sound: "this is the Nik Kershaw...Howard Jones..." which inspired me to yell out "Thomas Dolby!" Neil looked at me, cracked a huge grin, and said, a little drunkenly, "Thomas bloody Dolby!" before resuming his place in the song.
"A Drinking Song" went directly into the familiar snare roll drum beat that signals the beginning of "Tonight We Fly," which thrilled my girlfriend and myself...but Neil signaled for Rob Farrer to stop, giving a face as if to say "nah." I couldn't believe it! Rob kept going and looked puzzled, and several of us in the audience yelled for Neil to keep going and do it. It is apparently Neil's favorite song that he has ever written, and a marvelous one at that. The song has a soaring feeling, not only in the music but in the exquisite lyrics about everyday life, the pursuit of happiness, and the search for truth and God. It basically sums up the entire Neil Hannon philosophy in one exquisite pop song...and to think he was not going to play it! However, I'm extremely grateful that the audience was able to convince Neil to go through with it, despite his cold. The performance was top notch...another highlight.
After Neil and company left the stage, they emerged for one more fantastic encore...and a surprising one at that: "Sunrise," the closer of the "Fin De Siecle" album. It was a terrific closer, and undoubtedly one of the absolute highlights of the evening. A dour waltz with an ascending melody and lyrics about Neil's heritage, it features a soaring high vocal in places, which Neil tackled without wavering one bit. A great end to a wonderful evening.
All in all, despite Neil's sickness, he put on an excellent, diverse, tight show. The wonder and beauty of his songs shone through and proved to be strong enough that a quartet could do them justice...aided in no doubt by the versatility and proficiency of the instrumentalists (which, I must add, he failed to introduce! Neil, you cad!).
Seeing the Divine Comedy--probably one of my top five favorite bands of all time--in concert was a dream come true for me, and I only hope Neil will decide to do it again (perhaps with a full orchestra). I was very surprised and impressed that Neil Hannon could pack the albeit tiny Troubadour to capacity. I've always been completely baffled at how diverse, intelligently written music fails to catch on with the masses. (Then again, that shouldn't be that much of a surprise, should it?) Judging from the turnout and warm audience at the Troubadour on Tuesday, there may be hope for the free world just yet.
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