Sunday, 11 November 2012

7th November 2012: The Divine Comedy / Pugwash, Royal Festival Hall, London

Birthdays - ruddy marvellous, aren’t they? Your birthday’s the one day of the year when it’s all about you, attention seeking behaviour is positively encouraged, and you’re allowed to wear badges without looking like an overgrown Boy Scout.

And if you’ve got some completely arbitrary numerical milestone to celebrate, you can make an even bigger deal out of it by hiring somewhere out for the evening, having a load of your adoring fans pay money to come along, and make them listen to you sing the songs you want to sing all night whilst you get steadily more blotto.

But enough about my 34th birthday party last weekend; apparently Neil Hannon thought this was such a good idea that he stole it wholesale for an evening of music and merriment at the Royal Festival Hall this week which I was lucky enough to attend.

Welcome to another selection of terrible iPhone photos...
still, they're mine.

Arriving at the Festival Hall for a Divine Comedy gig is a slightly sobering experience, in all honesty. The last time this happened was back in 1997, and the gig itself ranks in my top 5 of all time – the full Divine Comedy band plus a massive orchestra, playing an amazing setlist of early classics (and “Mr Blue Sky”). However, I don’t know if you’ve ever booked tickets for a gig with a partner and then managed to break up with them before the event rolled around, but take it from me: find someone else to go with.

The evening began with awkward drinks during which I looked at the floor more than my ex whilst she asked me why I’d broken up with her, followed by me trying to turn ‘because I met someone else’ into a positive thing. A career in politics was officially off the cards at this point. Still, after we’d given up on that, we went for a wander round the foyer and bumped into various members of the band (as was at the time), and she confirmed my choice to move on by not only failing to recognise Joby Talbot and Bryan Mills but not even knowing who they were when I was all excited afterwards. My guilt was suitably assuaged as you can tell by the fact that I’ve forgotten all about this sorry tale and never mention it.

The old band...

Anyway, with only one member in The Divine Comedy this decade, there are fewer exciting people to be spotted in the foyer this time around (sadly I fail to bump into Graham Linehan – well, sadly for me, I doubt he wants to hear about how much I laugh every time I see one particular Big Train sketch.) Being alone, due to poor Karin being ill, and potentially interested Twitter followers failing to spot my spare ticket offer, there’s nothing to be done but grab a Meantime IPA and take my seat for the evening’s fun – via the ushers who are handing out party hats (declined for fear of chronic ‘hat hair’) and party blowers (very much accepted.)

Luckily, I don’t have too long to wait before the room goes dark for the most excellent…

…fronted by Irish-Jeff-Lynne and cuddly giant Thomas Walsh, who arrives on stage to sporadic buzzing from the auditorium and thanks us for bringing our kazoos. There’s a few minutes of fiddling with guitars and other equipment, during which he decides that we all sound like The Clangers, and then we’re off, with ‘Be My Friend’, the first of several tracks from this year’s excellent new album ‘The Olympus Sound’.

It’s a nice start to the evening, with Beatles/Beach Boys/ELO-esque harmonies perfectly nailed by the other band members and a confident lead from Thomas. Ahhh, I’d hoped to get through these couple of paragraphs without using the three letters O, E and L in any kind of acronym, but heck, it’s the closest frame of reference for much of the material tonight, and let’s be honest, when you walk on stage with a guitar featuring a massive sticker with the letters DLM (for Duckworth-Lewis Method, the ‘other band’ of Messrs Walsh and Hannon) arranged in a parody of the front cover of ‘A New World Record’, you’re kind of asking for it. (By the way, anyone know where I can get one of these stickers? I pretty much want one more than anything right now…)

The band are tight, Thomas is a great frontman, and they bring to life the songs from ‘Olympus Sound’ (which is going to make this year’s top 10 list) – so I can only assume they do the same to the songs I’m not familiar with, including the “massive flop single ” ‘It’s Nice to be Nice’, ‘Apples’, and ‘The Finer Things in Life’(or ‘Finer Tings’, as Thomas sings in his best Irish.) This last song is kindly dedicated to uber-DC fan Paula, who Thomas is unsurprised to find is present. I think the question should be, if a Divine Comedy-related event happens and Paula is not there to hear it, does it actually make a sound?

There’s also a touching moment when ‘Dear Belinda’ segues into a good chunk of Paul McCartney’s ‘My Love’, played tonight in tribute to Wings guitarist Henry McCullough who’s been taken ill today (but happily not died, as reported on Irish radio by “gobshites”, as Thomas tells us with disgust.) Then there’s even a sort of “weight raffle” as we’re all encouraged to guess the weight of the band in order to win a 10” vinyl of the band’s new EP. “50 stone?”, guesses someone. “That’s not too far off actually… for me”, says Thomas, prompting the biggest laugh of the gig.

The penultimate song sees Neil somewhat incognito in shades and a hat take to the piano at stage right, to join Thomas for ‘Meeting Mr Miandad’, a song from the Duckworth-Lewis Method concept album about cricket (sample lyric – “Meeting Mr. Miandad / Meeting Mr. Miandad/ when we get to Pakistan / in a VW camper van…”, well I suppose it doesn’t all have to be about foreign cinema and existential angst.)

And then we end with ‘Answers on a Postcard’, during which Thomas tells us it’s finally time to get out the “kazoos” so we all blow our party blowers furiously for the duration of the instrumental break, nearly hyperventilating and passing out in the process (or maybe that’s just me.)

The band’s 30 minute set has been excellent fun and it goes down a treat with the crowd, but it’s over all too soon. I make a note to definitely make it to a full gig next time Pugwash are playing in London.

Pugwash setlist:
Be My Friend
Finer Things in Life
It’s Nice to be Nice
Dear Belinda/ My Love
Fall Down
Meeting Mr Miandad (with Neil Hannon)
Answers on a Postcard

There’s then a quick break while the stage is set for…

… or is it just Neil Hannon? Well, in my last DC review (went down a storm, you should really read it) I made a case for why Neil has every right to go out on the road by himself as The Divine Comedy (summary – he wrote all the songs, good songs are good songs, just buy a ticket) – but I still can’t help but secretly hope that on the other side of that strategically placed pile of presents at the back right of the stage there’s a drum kit, and that Joby, Miggy, Bryan, Ivor and Rob are going to come out halfway through to rock it up on songs from ‘Casanova’, ‘Fin de Siecle’ and ‘Regeneration’.  I think we all know that doesn’t happen – but still, read on for something equally good in a very different way.

Neil takes the stage to some fittingly silly piano music, and to a cacophony of party blowers (somehow he seems as ignorant of this development as Thomas), before sitting down at the piano to sing Happy Birthday to himself. (“I’m not forty-one / I’m not forty-three/ Happy birthday dear Neil / Happy Birthday to me…”)

It’s a giant party from the off, beginning with a couple of tracks from most recent album ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’, during the second of which, Neil manages to choke on "Joan Miro" before clearing his throat with gin, segueing into ‘It’s My Party and I’ll cry if I want to’, and introducing his first special guest. First up is Tom Chaplin from Keane, who seems like an odd guest until Neil explains that he once did them a favour, reading a poem at one of their gigs, and that Tom’s here as payment. It will surprise and interest nobody that I was at that gig, too (one of the first ever at the O2, fact fans.)

I’m actually a reasonably big Keane fan, though I know many aren’t, but nobody hearing Tom’s rendition of ‘Love What You Do’ could say that the lad can’t sing. It’s a more laid back and touching rendition than the album version and registers reasonably highly on the shiver-o-meter. “You’re much younger than me, aren’t you?”, says Neil to Tom as he leaves the stage.

That's Tom Chaplin from Keane. No, honestly it is. Can't you tell?

Left to his own devices (now that would be a great cover for him to do…), Neil goes back to the “new” stuff for a few songs, including ‘The Complete Banker’, complete with comedy chipmunk-style sideways glare at an apposite moment. It’s followed by ‘Indie Disco’ during which Neil challenges the audience to clap along better than last year (apparently we’re successful but frankly how hard is it to clap in time to something? Talk about setting your sights low.)

And then it’s time for another special guest – certainly one I wouldn’t have expected , as I’m not quite sure what the connection is between Neil and Alison Moyet.  If anything, I’d think he’d want to keep her well away since she towers over him and makes him look like a midget. But there’s a welcome trade-off of songs as Neil plays the synth riff from Yazoo’s ‘Don’t Go’ on piano for Alison to do her diva thang over, before Alison reciprocates with a powerful reading of ‘Certainty of Chance’.

Oh look, that's almost vaguely recognisable as Alison Moyet! 

Neil seems genuinely in awe as Alison makes her way into the wings, but it doesn’t take long for him to remember who this evening is all about, as he demands that a giant 42 be brought onto the stage whilst he straps on his guitar for the first time tonight. Evidently what Neil wants, Neil gets, as a team of stage hands silently push a giant, lit-up birthday-candle style number 42 onto the rear right of the stage. Take that, Muse…. lasers are so last week.

The guitar set is somewhat familiar from last time, although this time the capo-changing guy during ‘Perfect Lovesong’ is dressed in a Noel Coward smoking jacket and appears to be halfway through shaving (I decide this is a subtle nod to the 1997 gig when Neil shaved off his legendary beard during the interval – even though it clearly isn't. ) The last song in this little section is a nice audience-singalong which turns into an audience blow-along as the entire crowd attempts to recreate the theme tune to “Father Ted” on party blowers. Having once played a wind instrument, I discover that by fashioning a rudimentary embouchure I can actually play proper notes of my choosing on the blower, and I like to think that the people sitting around me appreciate my actual recreation of the solo – although of course they’re too embarrassed by my superior skills to say so.

“Look at all my lovely presents…” says Neil as he makes it back to the piano, before revealing that the gigantic boxes at the back of the stage are in fact concealing the real surprise of this evening (duh, we got there a thousand words ago, Neil - get with it.) Internal cries of “drum kit drum kit drum kit” eventually give out as the wall of boxes is taken away, reverse-Roger Waters style, to reveal a string quartet. Well, that’s cool, a string quartet will add an extra dimension to the sound for the next few song. “As it’s my birthday and I can do what I want to, I’m going to play a whole album…” – suddenly the penny drops.

A few weeks after my previous DC gig, Neil performed at a charity gig in Belfast, where he’d advertised that he’d be playing one of his albums in its entirety with a string quartet. I’d been sorely tempted to make the trip but in the end it didn’t work out for whatever reason and I’ve been fed up about it ever since. “This is called Promenade”, says Neil, as the widest smile in living memory cracks my cheeks, my eyes get a little misty, and a quarter of the audience decide it’s time to go to the bar.

‘Promenade’ was the second Divine Comedy album I heard, after the more immediately accessible ‘Casanova’ with its clutch of hit singles, and it quickly became one of my favourite albums of all time, featuring the perfect mix of rock music, chamber music and Chanson, with everything from list-song par excellence ‘Seafood Song’ (“Octopussy, jellyfishy, dolphin’s an acquired taste…”) to absolutely chilling piano ballad ‘Ten Seconds to Midnight’. The album deals with romance, literature, drinking, death, and perhaps rebirth as the protagonists soar up above the world during the closing ‘Tonight We Fly’ (always guaranteed to uplift and upset in equal measure at the end of the previous 40 minutes’ emotional rollercoaster.)

There’s nothing  I can say about ‘Promenade’ being performed in its entirety with a string quartet to do it justice. Right from the opening notes of ‘Bath’, the group have me utterly spellbound to the exclusion of everything around me, which is lucky given that I’ve been desperately waiting for an interval to go and relieve myself of those IPAs and have decided that whatever the next song is I’m going to miss it (clearly now not an option.)

Quite apart from the fact that they’re playing one of my top 5 albums of all time, which frankly should be enough for anyone’s £25, this also means that there are several songs I’ve never seen performed live by any version of The Divine Comedy. The aforementioned ‘Seafood Song’ is one of these, as is the absolutely sublime ‘Neptune’s Daughter’, and ‘The Booklovers’ - on record an odd juxtaposition of solemn chamber music with Neil reading out a list of author’s names, followed by irreverent impressions of each of them. I’m not convinced it’s Neil’s favourite moment of tonight, starting as it does with Neil picking the wrong list of authors to read from, which leads to it being restarted.  After the song is done, Neil folds up the lyrics into a paper aeroplane and throws it into the crowd. “Never playing THAT again!” In the absence tonight of Sean Hughes, who did most of the impressions on the record, I’m deeply impressed by a group of hardcore fans sitting somewhere upstairs who augment the performance by shouting out “Oooh-arrrhhh” and “Never heard of it…” every so often.

In fact, I wish I was sitting with those people instead of being amongst people who keep looking at their watches or getting up to go to the loo. Yes, this section of the show is not for everyone, featuring some pretty obscure material, like the spoken word religious rant which is the highlight of ‘Don’t Look Down’, and the somewhat minimal reverse-arpeggios of ‘Geronimo’ (nearly forgotten completely until Neil suddenly stops playing the intro to ‘Don’t Look Down’ and some wag sitting in my seat helpfully shouts “You forgot one!” “Yes, I realised that, thank you…”)

It’s a section of the show for the faithful who’ve been there since the early days, for those who appreciate beauty and intelligence in their music as well as just a good tune, and for those who want to shed a tear or two during the wonderful oboe solo in ‘The Summerhouse’ (played tonight on violin). Not that I did that at all. And mostly, I think, it’s a section for Neil – it is his birthday after all, in case we didn’t know.

With the rousing final chords of ‘Tonight We Fly’, the main set comes to a close and Neil introduces the quartet – Chris, Emma, Jo and Lucy – some of whom have played live with Neil for decades. It’s not a full-band reunion, but I’ll take what I can get.

After this cultural highlight of my life, anything else can only be a disappointment, and thus the first encore of ‘National Express’ seems like a ridiculous anti-climax. Who wants to hear a song about jolly hostesses serving crisps and tea, when we just finished a 40-minute song cycle about life itself? Well, the rest of the audience, is the answer, as it goes down a treat of course even though I’m sure I detect the tiniest hint of ‘do I really have to play this again?’ in Neil’s delivery.  Still it is just one of two songs tonight that I’d consider ‘the hits’ so full marks to him for not pandering to anyone on his special day.

Before Neil can start on another song, a young girl (I’m assuming his daughter) wheels on a trolley with a giant chocolate cake on it, upon which Neil gives her a big kiss and a cuddle (yes, definitely his daughter), blows out the candles and sticks his hand right into it to grab a giant fistful and shove it into his mouth, before throwing a couple more handfuls into the crowd. I hope nobody down the front is wearing white.

“I don’t know if I can play this, but unfortunately I have to…” he says after wiping his chocolatey hands on a towel and settling back down to the piano. We get a tour of several different chords before he finds the right one (an A Minor suspended 9th over a pedal bass note, apparently) and kicks off ‘To Die a Virgin’ – a great song in any case but presumably chosen for its inclusion of the line “Well hooray, it’s my birthday”, although he’d rather not be singing about the dirty magazines he found under his brother’s bed in front of his mother, judging by his profuse apologies in the middle.

The evening ends with a couple of songs from ‘Absent Friends’, firstly ‘Charmed Life’, which is dedicated to his daughter, his family, friends and seemingly everyone else bar the kitchen sink, but seems to move him quite a bit with its poignant lyrics, meaning that his second exit is a quite subdued affair.

But fear not, he returns quickly to distribute the rest of the cake to the front row before ‘Our Mutual Friend’, a tale of heartbreak but a fan favourite and one that earns him a standing ovation and an “I love you Neil!” from several party-goers. “I’ve no idea why,” he says in his usual modest fashion, before thanking us all for putting up with him all these years.

If you read my last review, you’ll have picked up on how self-deprecating Neil was throughout the whole thing, apologising for mistakes in advance, messing up and making light of it – tonight, there’s none of that (well, only for comedy reasons). He plays with confidence, sings beautifully when he’s not choking on cake, and doesn’t apologise nearly half as much. Tonight, it’s all about him and his music, and he finally seems happy in this role - I’m extremely pleased for him as nobody deserves it more.

After all, it is his birthday.

The Divine Comedy Setlist:

Happy Birthday
Assume the Perpendicular
The Lost Art of Conversation
Love What You Do (with Tom Chaplin)
Bang Goes the Knighthood
The Complete Banker
At the Indie Disco
Don’t Go (with Alison Moyet)
The Certainty of Chance (with Alison Moyet)
Perfect Lovesong
A Lady of a Certain Age
Songs of Love


Going Downhill Fast
The Booklovers
A Seafood Song
Don’t Look Down
When the Lights Go out All Over Europe
The Summerhouse
Neptune’s Daughter
A Drinking Song
Ten Seconds to Midnight
Tonight We Fly

National Express
To Die a Virgin
Charmed Life

Our Mutual Friend