I was pretty excited to be going to see The Divine Comedy for the first time. I was really impressed with the new album Foreverland which I recently reviewed for Brightonsfinest and I’d never before seen a show in the iconic 30s theatre at the De La Warr Pavilion, in Bexhill. I wasn’t quite prepared for how blown away I was going to be by the show. I have to say Neil Hannon really is an under-appreciated genius, I’m quite baffled that he’s not considered as much of a national treasure as someone like Pulp frontman, Jarvis Cocker, who seems a reasonable equivalent, having also risen into public consciousness in Britain during the mid-to-late 90s. Perhaps it’s because Neil is from that lesser regarded corner of the UK: Northern Ireland; or perhaps it’s because there’s some peculiar invisible thin-line between the music we treat as serious, or meaningful, and that which we dismiss as simply comedic.
When we arrived at the venue Irish singer-songwriter Lisa O’Neill was just getting started on her set of folky acoustic songs, each accompanied by a charming anecdote. O’Neill was pleasantly self-deprecating, very thankful for the opportunity she was getting to spread her wares across the sea; she was keen to sell the last few copies of her Potholes In The Sky album on this, her last night in the UK. Lisa was able to repay the favour to Neil later in the night by joining him on stage to sing Foreverland’s lovely duet ‘Funny Peculiar’, a song that suited her vocals perfectly.
Hannon strode out onto the stage in a fitted black suit and skinny tie, a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. The opening began with the stage-musical sounding numbers, ‘Down In The Street Below’ and ‘Assume The Perpendicular’, both taken from 2010’s Bang Goes The Knighthood album, which surprisingly gets more of a showing tonight than Foreverland. In a way I’m glad it did, as it was an album I’d largely overlooked, and mistakenly so judging by the strength of the songs they played. From the get-go Hannon is a master entertainer, of the old school variety. He manages to go through a series of costume changes and choreographed changes of mood within the set in a hilariously tongue-in-cheek fashion. He manages to walk a tightrope between the ridiculous and the sublime with deft skill. He’s the genius composer of this long suite of exceptionally clever pieces of music but he’s also the comic who delivers them to you with such aplomb, never taking anything particularly seriously.
‘Our Mutual Friend’, from the 2004 album Absent Friends, was a case in point. Near the start of the song Hannon decided to wander down to the front of the stage and sit, out of range of the stage lights, in pitch blackness. When he tried to rise from this inadvertently awkward position he ended up taking a bit of a tumble and wound up lying on his back, all of which he had begun to comment upon into the mic, having lost his place in the verses, which had me in absolute stitches. But as the song drew to a close Hannon turned his back to the crowd and allowed his skilful band, and the gorgeous composition, to speak for him – and that sound was truly moving: beautiful rising, floating strings, performed by one of the excellent keyboard players. It’s rare to find yourself moved from laughter to wonder within a single song, but it’s a good indication of what you might expect at a Divine Comedy show.
The band took us through a fabulous two hour set of diverse numbers, reminding us we knew more songs from the late 90s than we’d remembered and showing those of us who’d stopped paying attention for much of the 00s that there are plenty of gems to be discovered on those later albums too. I could have complained that there weren’t more songs from Foreverland, for example it seemed a little odd that he changed into his French Revolutionary General's outfit without playing a version of ‘Napoleon Complex’; but ‘Sweden’ suited the costume just as well! Of all the old hits ‘Generation Sex’ somehow didn’t quite sound right to my ears, the live arrangement under-playing the song a little – but they more than made up for this with gorgeous versions of tracks like ‘Frog Princess’, ‘Something For The Weekend’ and ‘National Express’.
While there was clearly a detailed plan for how the set would progress you could tell it was also punctuated by spontaneity, that Neil and the band were really enjoying themselves too. In the middle of the set they broke for drinks, revealing a large globe in the centre of the stage was, in fact, a drinks cabinet. The globe had always been part of the show, but during the day wandering around Bexhill they’d found a far grander one in an antiques shop and promptly upgraded. Neil pointed out the old globe, relegated to the side of the stage, prompting his guitarist to suggest they now had, “the best of both worlds”! After a few songs on stools, perhaps an ironic nod to the stool-rock of the mid-90s, and a final costume change, Neil suggested people get up and dance to ‘Indie Disco’, another great tune from Bang Goes The Knighthood; it was the sort of request you imagined the somewhat older crowd would gladly ignore, save for a few devotees. To my surprise pretty much the entire crowd in this sold-out 1,000 seater theatre got up off their arses and made it to the front of the stage, filled the aisles or shook it in front of their seat to a not particularly well-known (but certainly poignant) track. From that point on Neil and the band knew they had us eating from the palm of their hands, and their biggest hits came out one after another, even including a version of ‘Songs Of Love’, which many will know best as the theme to Father Ted. So having been totally wowed by the musicianship, the song-writing and the showmanship I saw tonight I’m determined to see this band live again as soon as possible! You might say I’m late to the table to find myself a total convert to The Divine Comedy, but just listen to the last two albums: the band are phenomenal and Neil Hannon’s song-writing just goes from strength to strength. There’s no one quite like him that I can think of in music at the moment, so catch it while you can; I think they’re back in London in February. See you in the aisles!
Read our review of Foreverland here: brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/12-music/1716-the-divine-comedy-foreverland