15 Feb 2002: Schuba's Chicago
I could scarcely believe my eyes when going through the list of upcoming concerts. The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon’s tribute band to Scott Walker, Noel Coward and (though he’ll never admit it) Neil Diamond, was coming to town, and doing an acoustic show at that. It turns out, there’s a reason the show is an acoustic show. In the nine months between the UK and US releases of Divine Comedy’s latest album, Regeneration (Nettwerk), Hannon decided to sack the rest of the band. That hardly mattered, though. That Regeneration even found a home on this side of the pond was a blessing. A live show, in whatever form, is gravy.
After an engaging opening performance by Joe Cassidy of Butterfly Child (most of which this reporter, regrettably, missed), the crowd started buzzing. It turns out this show was even more special than I realized; see, Divine Comedy has never toured the States before, and they’re only doing an handful of dates as a headliner. After that, they open up for Ben Folds (genius move for both parties, if you ask me) where they’ll play a doubtlessly truncated version of their headliner set. The true fans, of course, knew this, and they were all here, chomping at the bit for Hannon, he with the devilishly clever lyric book and the smoothest baritone voice since Philip Oakey. Drawing as little attention to himself as possible, Hannon hit the stage.
All five feet, two inches of him. How does that voice come from such a small frame?
With a haircut not unlike David Cassidy and backed by two ridiculously versatile musicians, Hannon at first seemed embarrassed by the enthusiastic crowd, but after a false start, he collects himself and launches into “In Pursuit of Happiness”, from 1997’s A Short Album About Love. From there, they did a very jumpy version of fan favorite “National Express”, with the audience gleefully singing “Bop bop bada, baaa bop bada” while Hannon filled in the “yeah,” “uh huh” and “all right” bits. “What a wonderful reception,” Hannon gushed, still a bit dumbstruck. If he had ended the show right there, few would have complained.
Of course, he didn’t. Hannon then treated the audience to a generous helping of Regeneration, where the acoustic arrangements helped tone down Nigel Godrich’s stern production on the album. “Mastermind”, in particular, soared, sounding like a lost Burt Bacharach chestnut. The paranoid “Note to Self”, which sounds like it was written after repeat viewings of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, worked much better than I expected. This was largely because of his able assistants, who at various points in the evening played drums, piano, bass, guitar, xylophone and all kinds of percussion. They even pulled out a grade school recorder on “Perfect Lovesong”, the sight and sound of which caused Hannon to burst into a laughing fit in the first chorus. “Sorry, but this makes me think of some primary school band,” he said. He almost cracked the second time through the song as well, but held on to see the song to its finish, and another ecstatic audience reaction.
With regard to the rest of the set, Hannon’s choices were most unexpected, almost to the point of bewildering. Sure, he did “Becoming More Like Alfie” and “The Summerhouse”, and dusted off “If I Were You (I’d Be Through With Me)” from A Short Album About Love. But there were also what can only be described as glaring omissions from his set. “Something For The Weekend”, the song that broke him in the UK, was skipped. Ditto “Gin Soaked Boy”, “Everybody Knows (Except You)”, “The Frog Princess”, and “The Certainty of Chance”, all of which I had figured would be live staples. And you can forget about “I’ve Been to a Marvellous (sic) Party”, his “Born Slippy”-ish cover of the Noel Coward song. Clearly, Hannon’s goal was to showcase the new album, and he did, quite well. Still, I thought “Something for the Weekend” was a no-brainer inclusion. Could that song be his “Radio Free Europe”, the big hit that he refuses to play?
Hannon and the boys did make up for this shortcoming by pulling the best encore move I’ve ever seen, and it should stand as the model for how to treat the audience. They walked to the side of the stage, stood there, in plain view of the audience, for about 10 seconds, and then came back out to finish the set. If ever there was a cliché to playing live that needs to be retired, it’s the drawn out break between set and encore, first encore and second encore, etc. Granted, Hannon only did this because there is no backstage area at Schuba’s for them to go, but that’s not the point. He was smart enough not to yank the audience’s proverbial chain, and for that, I was grateful.
For a guy who you would expect to be much more at home in the studio than on the road, Neil Hannon and mates put on one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve seen in years, even if they didn’t play “Something for the Weekend”. British pop has been a dirty word in the States the last couple of years, but thanks to Travis, Coldplay, and Radiohead, another renaissance could be on the horizon. With any luck, the enthusiastic response Divine Comedy received might persuade some other British bands to take another crack at the States. Whaddaya say, Lightning Seeds?