When you’ve been at the game as long as Neil Hannon has (almost 30 years) and when you are as accomplished, adept and adored as he palpably is, you can confidently begin your live set with a pensive, poignant and potentially downbeat, though still oddly uplifting, track like ‘Down In The Street Below’. There’s no risk in foregoing the opening banger, even though there are plenty in the canon (pun unintended!) since the expectant audience will pay attention to, and probably silently mouth, every single word. Except for those who are still piling in from the bar – something that did not go unnoticed or uncommented on by Neil himself when he first spoke to the audience, “Nice of you to be so prompt!” came his greeting, as he grinned. Ah, always with the irony, the pointed understatement and a whiff of sarcasm: the modus operandi of The Divine Comedy right from its inception. He was in fine company though. Well known for his own love of a tipple and often comically demanding a drink mid-gig (tonight was no exception, “I have my heart set on Guinness,” came his lament). He even lifted the lid of an old-school desk at one point, mid-song (he loves a good prop) to make every single one of his five-piece band their presumed drink of choice, taking it over to them individually as they played. Comedy by name and comedy by nature.
Here is a musician – one of our absolute finest singer-songwriter composers – who has mined his own, and everyone else’s, life-angst, anxiety and exhilaration and distilled them down into some truly magnificent and highly visual vignettes that make the listener gasp, giggle and even weep at their uncanny, and sometimes uncomfortable, accuracy. This is, in Neil’s own words, the Foreverland tour’s “last hurrah”. It is an album he has toured extensively and, unusually, in multiple phases these past two years, but it will soon give way to a recently-announced new and double album for 2018. Yet folk are far from jaded by the back catalogue. Nothing stales Hannon’s infinite variety, to quote the Bard. No track ever tires or loses a single shred of relevance, while the live context serves only to elevate the acutely observational songs further still. Presumably this is because (back to the Bard!) the wellspring of Hannon’s material is humanity, and the passing decades essentially do little to change our collective nature. We will always want to see and hear ourselves reflected back at us.
Hannon’s sweeping, panoramic, orchestral sound was perfectly replicated on stage by guitar, bass, drums, accordion and double keys, including his signature harpsichord – the fulcrum of this unique brand of baroque pop. Occasionally, the famously multi-instrumental frontman would casually throw on a guitar, but he mostly relegated himself to the humble tambourine and focused on some truly outstanding vocals, as well as general showmanship, given his penchant for a costume and a well-placed prop or two – e.g. a typewriter and traditional telephone to theatrically accompany the track ‘The Plough’. How that voice is so strong, night after sold-out night, is anyone’s guess. Staggeringly, there was no discernible difference between studio albums and live show.
The night was a romp through the silly (‘National Express’, ‘Generation Sex’, ‘To Die A Virgin’) and the more serious (‘Eye Of The Needle’, a dazzling rendition of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and ‘Tonight We Fly’ as a moving closer). A smorgasbord; a selection box; all the windows of an advent calendar all at once. Light and shade in both senses, with intermittent illumination of the audience at Hannon’s request.
There is so much that stays with you after a Divine Comedy gig; the prodigious talent, the eerie, yet strangely reassuring, feeling that you’ve been looking into a mirror, a voyeur to your own life, somehow inside and outside of a painting all at once. Most of all, though, you’re struck by Hannon’s ability to so warmly connect with his audiences, talking to them – often mid-song, during an instrumental section – or acting up in front of them, like an over-excited child who’s been allowed to rifle through the dressing-up box (he spent most of the gig dressed as Napoleon) and stay up past his bedtime.
Naomi Hamilton, as supporting solo act Jealous Of The Birds, also richly deserves a mention for her wonderfully intimate opening half-hour set (“Let’s make this one, giant living room”) delivered in her Tracey Thorn-esque, plaintive voice that leaves you wanting more. Naomi is one to explore and to expect to hear again.
So many Divine Comedy lyrics leap out because they ring so true, and few more so than the line in ‘National Express’ – the last song before the encore – “All human life is here”. As you look around the audience in the numerous floodlit moments, you see this to irrefutably be the case. However, nowhere does this line ring more true than in the songs themselves, as an entire body of work. Humanity is the very fabric of every Divine Comedy song ever written, which is why Neil Hannon will be around for some time to come. No “last hurrah” here (and hurrah for that).