Tuesday, 8 November 2011

30th October 2011: The Divine Comedy - Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon Avon

After gigs on both Thursday and Friday nights, I decide it's time to award myself a day off - besides which there's nothing on Saturday that I want to see. (No, stop the presses, I've just noticed that Hanson were playing at the Indigo2 - if only I'd known!)

Not all of these are girls.

In actual fact, I think a day's rest is called for in order to be able to fully enjoy what I know is going to be an amazing gig by Neil Hannon (aka the Divine Comedy) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I've been looking forward to this for months, having managed to bag front row seats, and with various things to celebrate including my birthday, I've booked Karin and I into a nice hotel for the weekend. 

As an aside, the Arden Hotel is highly recommended if you're ever after a nice weekend away, although if you do splash out for one of the really nice rooms like we did, make sure you make better use of it than sitting around watching "Man Vs. Food" (awesome though this is) and eating Haribo you got free in the street whilst drinking Pepsi Max from Poundland. Actually, to be fair, we did have an amazing afternoon tea at Henley Street tea rooms in town, although I'm not sure we'll ever be allowed back there after Karin filled out their questionnaire and threatened to deduct points from their score for the moderately creepy photos of Prince Philip all over the walls.

This is for two people, I promise you.

At some point I'll do a blog about the furthest distances I've ever traveled to get to a gig, but I think this one will be a hands-down winner for the shortest. With the tickets saying 7.30 start, we're sitting in our room at 7.15 wondering whether it's too early to get going, and when we eventually do saunter the 50 yards across the street, we arrive in our seats without too much time to wait before the concert begins. We spend this time looking around at all the people who are braver than us and have turned up in Shakespearean dress, before analysing our seats and wondering if we might be a little too close given that we're not overly fussed about seeing inside Neil's nose.

After not too long, a couple of chaps saunter onto the stage, one dressed down in checked shirt and jeans and another who's obviously decided that the occasion demands a bit more formality so is in a rather natty suit. The checked shirt guy is James Walbourne- as it turns out an excellent singer-songwriter who, according to his bio, has played with the Pogues, The Pretenders and a whole raft of other talented artists ranging from Saint Etienne to Death in Vegas. I don't catch the name of the other fellow, but HE HAS A DOUBLE BASS. With a bow and everything. I'm immediately sold. 

All your double bass are belong to us.

For 30 minutes, the pair have us absolutely mesmerised while they play songs from James's new album 'The Hill', which seems like a must-buy. Not being an expert in these things, I'm reliably informed that the songs they're playing would mostly fall into the category of 'Bluegrass' although to me they are in a previously undiscovered genre which I shall call 'country-ish music that isn't utterly shit.'  

I don't know if it's the theatre setting (which James describes as "the weirdest gig of the year"), or just the quality of the performance, but the audience are absolutely silent as the two guys run through their set, which includes what seems to start out as a heartfelt love song before then veering off into rather more creepy territory when he murders the subject of his love, and a song dedicated to an ex, entitled 'Cocaine Eyes'. No lack of dark humour here tonight, then.

I say we were absolutely silent, but there's certainly no lack of applause and cheering between songs so I hope they get the idea that we were all fairly impressed. The set ends with a cover of an Edwyn Collins song and then James shuffles off, letting us know that we can buy his CD outside but only if we're quick because he needs to go and catch a train back home. Rock and roll.

The lights come up and many people head off to the bar, but we spend our time befriending a ladybird which is crawling along the edge of the stage. I'd like to say at this point that the tiny ladybird walking slowly along the enormous stage makes me realise how small and insignificant we all are in the scheme of time and the universe's grand plan. But really, it's more like "Teehee... A ladybird!!"

And so to the main event. I've seen The Divine Comedy live 6 times between 1996 and 1999, in guises ranging from a 5-piece rock band to a full symphony orchestra, but despite keeping up with the albums I haven't seen them (him) since then - partially because I've not been sure how Neil by himself could do justice to some of the songs which rely heavily on lush orchestration, and yes, the odd moment of full-on rock. But, having heard last year's 'Live at Somerset House' live album and enjoyed it a lot, I've decided that it's about time to give him another shot.

The lights dim and from the wings emerges a hunched over figure who hobbles onstage in costume and across to the piano to wish us good evening. Yes, Neil has made good on his promise to dress up as his favourite Shakespearean character, and here he is as, um... the one with the hump on his back. You know the one. (I'm ashamed to admit that I cannot identify quite who he's supposed to be at the time, although the embarrassment only lasts until Neil tells us all that he got a 'U' in A-level English and also knows little about Shakespeare, at which point I feel redeemed.)

I'm sorry, this genuinely is the best photo of Neil
 as Richard III I could manage.

Even more chances for literary redemption are soon offered, as Neil tells us that he's gone back through his entire catalogue looking for songs with Shakespearean quotes in them and is going to play all 3 of them during the course of the evening, inviting us to prove how clever we are by shouting "THE BARD" when the lines appear. At this, he launches into 'Bath' from 1994's superlative Promenade album, an odd opening song when shorn of its chamber-esque opening but good fun nonetheless. During the song comes our first opportunity to yell at Neil when a Shakespearean line crops up, but the crowd needs a little warming up still and Neil has to slow right down, pause and look expectant before we all start yelling "THE BARD!"

Part of the reason for our reticence is that the combination of acoustic music, Neil's soaring baritone and the beautiful and intimate venue means that everyone is completely captivated. As he moves through the evening, he switches every few songs from piano to guitar and mixes things up with songs from all the Divine Comedy albums (except, oddly , Liberation). There are dramatic story-telling epics like 'The Plough', moving ballads like 'A Lady of a Certain Age', indie rockers like obscure B-side 'Get Me To a Monastery', and what can only be described as jaunty Flanders & Swann-esque comedy songs about the state of the economy ('The Complete Banker'). And throughout all of these, the crowd is completely silent, creating a unique and magical atmosphere- except when we're told to sing, or heckle. 

My best 'Up-nose' shot.
Ah yes, the heckling! First Neil invites everyone to shout out requests between songs ("Not that I'm going to play any of them, mind you...") and then some banter breaks out. "Do you remember my hair in that video? [Everybody Knows...] God it was awful." Not as bad as your beard, I offer up in response. "Actually I had a beard until yesterday, but I shaved it off because I heard you wouldn't like it." And not only is Neil heckled by the crowd, but halfway through 'Perfect Lovesong', a hooded figure appears at the back of the stage, and moves quietly, scythe in hand, towards Neil from behind, as if making to decapitate him... He gets closer and closer as the song reaches its high point at the key change, and then... he shifts the capo on Neil's guitar so that he can play the rest of the song in the right key. The audience collapses in fits of giggles (as does Neil, nearly.)

The Richard III costume disappears little by little - first the hump/ blanket is removed from the jacket because it's genuinely impeding his ability to play the piano, and then at half-time, the outfit is removed entirely in favour of the evening's second sharp suit, which is accompanied by a rather fetching bowler hat for the performance of 'Complete Banker'. The hat is subsequently removed and placed on top of a topical prop which remains on the piano for the rest of the show like a macabre good luck mascot.

You see how blurry this is? Just imagine how bad it'll be
when you click on it. Best not to, eh?

Throughout, Neil remains in good humour (possibly to do with the tankards of wine he's consuming), and is far too self-deprecating about his piano and guitar playing for someone with his ridiculous amounts of talent. He warns us when he's about to mess up his piano parts, and even makes a big deal about his hands being too sweaty from nerves to play 'Something for the Weekend' properly on his guitar. Of course, he then plays it perfectly. He's even modest about his success when, upon starting to play 'National Express', he tells us all, "Yes, I wrote this one too. Good job too, or I'd be homeless." I do hope he's joking.

But for all the humour in catchy little ditties like the one about the bus, and the superb 'I Like' (Sample lyric: "I like your car, you curse like a trooper / During a hard reversing manoeuvre"), the evening is at its best when Neil ditches the comedy and goes straight for the heart. And nowhere is this done better than in the run of 4 songs from 'Promenade' which closes the main set. Settling down at the piano to start the haunting 'Neptune's Daughter', he takes us off into the fantasy world inhabited by the two lovers of the album's story and if it's true anywhere in the set that you can hear a pin drop, it's here. After the raucous 'Drinking Song', which works surprisingly well with piano and voice only, I'm not ashamed* to say that I start quietly weeping during the closing medley of 'Ten Seconds to Midnight' and 'Tonight We Fly', with their themes of the passage of time and mortality, all the while somehow being strangely uplifted. Somehow the closing lines get me every time:

"And when we die,
Will we be that disappointed or sad?
If heaven doesn't exist, what will we have missed?
This life is the best we've ever had."

*okay, I am slightly ashamed.

One of the best albums ever. Fact.

After such an amazing end to the main set, there's no chance we're letting Neil go anywhere without an encore, so after several minutes of standing ovation, he comes back on to listen to (and ignore) more requests - except this time, he decides he will play one of them, 'My Lovely Horse' from the Eurovision episode of Father Ted. Of all the songs in the set to be reinvented for this evening, this has to be the most changed- in Neil's hands this evening it becomes a rather touching piano ballad about a man who seems to be genuinely in love with his horse.

Continuing the silly theme is 'Can You Stand Upon One Leg?', which seems to me to be a homage to the songs from 70s/80s children's programmes Playschool and Playaway, which I remember vividly from my childhood, dancing around the living room with my parents to the songs on Vinyl LP. It's possible I'm the only one who remembers this and it's not intentional, but it is uncanny. Now, having heard last year's live album, I'm aware that at one point Neil asks the audience if they can tell a funny joke and hands out the microphone to the front row - as a result, every time I've heard a joke since buying the gig tickets I've thought, "Must remember that". Of course, as soon as the song starts, my mind goes completely blank, so I spend the whole of the first few verses internally dying and sending "notmenotmenotme" vibes up to the stage - but as luck would have it, someone up in the balcony is desperate to tell his joke and starts telling it before a microphone can get to him. 

"What goes ooooo? A cow with no lips."

Much, much better than anything I would have thought of in 15 seconds. The evening concludes again with a song which encompasses everything Neil is about - wit, emotion, intellect and humour. 'Our Mutual Friend' is an amazing song when accompanied by an orchestra and no less powerful in this stripped down version. 

Another standing ovation is richly deserved, and then a couple more songs are played on guitar, but eventually it becomes apparent that either Neil's run out of songs or he's had one tankard too many, so the evening comes to a close.

I'm left extremely glad we've come along - Karin hasn't really heard any of Neil's music before this evening, but has had a great time and appears to be something of a convert. And as for me, I'm reminded of exactly why The Divine Comedy were my favourite band during my university years. When we get back to the hotel, I'm immediately on my iTunes, listening to some of the songs again, talking incessantly about which bits were funny and which made me cry. 

Yes, I would love to see Neil back with the old band, or with a new band, or with an orchestra again, but I'm very glad to have seen this incarnation of The Divine Comedy. Great songs are great songs, however you play them, and I'm extremely happy that Neil's out there getting the credit he deserves for being one of the best songwriters of our times.

This photo is completely out of place. But I had nowhere else to put it and I was so pleased with myself for taking it that I had to include it somewhere. Let's have it be the last thing you remember about this blog, rather than the over-the-top gushing of the last few paragraphs. Cheers.

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