The first time I heard Neil Finn’s music was while I was at summer camp in 1982. One of the camp counselors lived in some Midwest test market for a new thing called MTV, and he’d brought a videocassette (Beta, no doubt) of some of its offerings. Practically every night for a week, it seems to me, we gathered around the TV to watch, fascinated, as our favorite bands came to life in bizarre, clunky fantasy worlds and stilted concert footage—the Pretenders, Judas Priest, Meatloaf, Fleetwood Mac. Mixed in with the more familiar names were bands we’d never heard of before, including one called Split Enz. The song was the quietly urgent “One Step Ahead”, and despite the cheesy day-glo set and young Neil’s awkward, overly emotive lip synching, the video seemed to have the power to calm the rambunctious chatter of a roomful of geeky 12-year olds, so that the song’s final chords always fell on an unlikely silence. “They might make it,” I remember one counselor quietly observing, before something embarrassing by Eddie Money got us all to bouncing off the walls again.
In a sense, however, Neil Finn has never really made it, at least not here in America, where both his bands tend to be regarded as one-hit wonders relegated to New Wave retro nights (Split Enz’s “I Got You”) and adult easy listening radio (Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”). And as a solo artist, he’s fared even worse: 1998’s brilliant Try Whistling This was virtually ignored by all but critics and diehard fans, and his retitled, belatedly issued One All shows few signs of doing much better. But on his recent live album Seven Worlds Collide and his latest tour, Finn is demonstrating that for all his continued obscurity, he’s made it with the audience that counts the most: his peers.
On July 5th at the L.A. House of Blues, Finn shared a generous, two-and-a-half hour set with a sold-out crowd and a dream cast of supporting players. Starting the evening with a core backup band that featured former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg and keyboardist/violinist Lisa Germano, Finn later welcomed onstage Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (a.k.a. Wendy and Lisa of Prince & the Revolution fame), Grant Lee Phillips, and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. He couldn’t get Sheryl Crow and Eddie Vedder, who have also collaborated with him recently, but still, Finn’s career is clearly entering its elder statesman phase, when other artists whose stature equals or perhaps even exceeds his are eager to lend him their talents.
On stage, Finn is a congenial, witty performer, and his easy rapport with the audience is almost as impressive as his prodigious songwriting talents. After opening with a sprightly version of Crowded House’s “Pineapple Head”, which gave Steinberg a chance to show off his chops on the upright bass, Finn greeted the crowd with a promise to deliver “a night of unfolding surprises, twists and turns on the road to rock ‘n’ roll heaven.” Although he pretty much made good on this promise, it was delivered with too much self-deprecating charm to come off as pretentious. So was his gentle mocking of an over-eager fan’s dream set list. “Let’s see if your list bears any resemblance to mine,” he said, picking it off the stage and scanning through it with mock indifference: “No, no, no Yes! No, no, definitely not, no .”
Perhaps the best illustrations of Finn’s extraordinary ease on stage came during a solo acoustic segment. Bravely dismissing his band after just six songs, Finn launched into an old Crowded House song even more off the beaten “greatest hits” path than “Pineapple Head”—the elegiac “Love This Life” off 1990’s Temple of Low Men. Despite the track’s obscurity, the crowd started singing right along, apparently knowing the song better than Finn himself, who miffed the chords of the second verse with a good-natured “Aw, shit.” Then he accepted a few gifts from the audience—a tie, which he simply flung around his neck “bush style,” and a poem, which he spontaneously set to music and sang on the spot. Following this up with a gorgeous acoustic version of “Fall at Your Feet”, Finn then welcomed Grant Lee Phillips to the stage and unselfishly accompanied the former Grant Lee Buffalo frontman on his “Honey Don’t Think” before sharing vocal chores with him on a lushly harmonized version of “Four Seasons in One Day”. Through it all the crowd had that same almost reverential air of attentiveness my fellow campmates and I shared while watching Split Enz on proto-MTV. It’s at moments like these that I’m amazed Neil Finn isn’t a superstar—how can somebody this talented still be playing middle-tier venues like the House of Blues?
Then, amazingly, things got better. The band returned, along with a very pumped Wendy Melvoin, who announced as she was strapping on her guitar, “I’m having the best time playing with this guy.” Her enthusiasm seemed to be infectious, and the whole band turned it up a notch for a spine-tingling version of “Sinner”, with Melvoin laying down the song’s ominous-yet-funky baritone guitar riff and Lisa Germano playing a great live version of its signature strings riff. Guitarist/keyboardist Sean Sullivan played a brief but catchy ditty of his own to cover while Finn tuned his guitar—a ruse on Finn’s part to get someone else to play, I suspect, since he had roadies swapping guitars out for him all night. This eagerness on Finn’s part to share the spotlight was part of the show’s charm—Finn’s skill as a performer is matched by his grace. “My life is so rich right now,” he said at one point, “I’m surrounded by so many amazing musicians,” and there was nothing remotely insincere in his tone of gratitude.
To my eternal delight, Finn played my old favorite “One Step Ahead”, and later let the audience decide what other Split Enz song they wanted to hear. Predictably, the L.A. crowd chose “I Got You” over “History Never Repeats”—in a town that’s never gotten over its obsession with New Wave, “I Got You” is one of those bubbly synth-laden anthems that never goes out of style. Then Johnny Marr, who had previously only teased the audience by sneaking out onstage for a harmonica solo during “Four Seasons”, finally entered the fray with his trademark chiming guitar licks, and the crowd went absolutely wild. His and Finn’s rendition of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, featured on Seven Worlds Collide, was electrifying, as was the Marr original “Down on the Corner”, which is so good it almost makes you fail to notice that Johnny really can’t sing.
With Marr’s masterful guitar in the mix, even Finn tunes that I’ve always considered sub-par sounded fantastic. Marr attacked the big arena-rock guitar riffs of “Loose Tongue” with gusto and precision, let fly with that chiming, Smiths-era sound on “She Will Have Her Way”, and brought a delicacy and depth to “Turn and Run” that the album version lacks. The Marr highlight, however, came during the show’s five-song encore, when Finn broke out another Smiths cover, Marr’s guitar effects masterpiece “How Soon Is Now?”. With Marr laying down the song’s thick bed of buzzsaw reverb, and Finn trading lead guitar swoops with Sullivan, it really did seem like we had arrived in rock ‘n’ roll heaven as promised.
To his credit, Finn refrained from trotting out the overplayed “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, wrapping up the evening instead with a rousing, all-band version of “Weather With You” and then a solo rendition of one of the songs that debuted on One All, the Americanized version of his latest album. This gorgeous ballad, “Lullaby Requiem”, may actually be the best song Finn’s written since “Sinner”, and as a closing number it served as a nice reminder that for all his past glories, the best achievements of this remarkable pop craftsman may still lie ahead.