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Neil Finn - Shepherd's Bush Empire, London on 3 May 2001

For those of you who are patient and interested, I'll tell you about Neil's performance on 3 May at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London....

May I first thank the Tube workers for not striking after all, which meant that I could spend the splendid evening as planned, vaguely in the company of Neil Finn, Johnny Marr and no doubt many of you fellow fans, rather than sitting at home watching Father Ted repeats (which are no bad thing, but not the same).

After an eternity following Alex Lloyd's suitably brief but interesting set (full of sound effects, just like his album), Neil & co took the stage at about 9.45 pm. I was watching from Level 1, which I'd mistakenly expected to be on the floor in front of the stage, where I had been the last time I'd been to the old red-interior ex-BBC theatre. I must admit that my ageing fogie self rather enjoyed having an uninterrupted view of the stage and looking down at the mass of squished people rather than being amongst them. Still, we all enjoyed the same wonderful music. My eyes, before the band appeared, were transfixed on the purple boa that was draped over the keyboards, as I couldn't help wondering if that would end up wrapped around young Neil (well, Jack L performs with a boa, and somehow it works). Sadly, or perhaps not, 'twas not to be.

'Young Neil' is indeed appropriate, because he looked terribly youthful, in fact straight out of the latter days of Split Enz, sporting a floppy fringe style and looking nothing but comfortable in a blue t-shirt under a long sleeved camp shirt and, of course, trousers. His whole band looked casual and comfortable, a far cry from the early Woodface tour. How is it that this man does not age? No fair.

Upon taking the stage in the darkness, Neil launched immediately into the first notes of Distant Sun, with three screens behind him then lighting up the intimate stage displaying a rotating sun image. What with the laser-like light show on these screens throughout the concert and Lisa Germano's frequent electric violin playing, I have to say my thoughts touched upon memories of the Electric Light Orchestra-but not for long.  Still, it accentuated the music well, and gave us the opportunity to see Neil with various shades of skin-red, blue, purple-much like a Teletubbie, really, but not as scary.

Neil ended the song with an impressive solo on the electric guitar, before turning to Hole in the Ice. Admirable backing vocals were provided by multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano (who reminded me of Janeane Garofalo) whilst she played keyboards, and the guitarist I knew as 'Hat Guy' because of his John Lennon Help!-era hat until he was introduced as being Sean Sullivan. This song, which always reminds me of Hole in the River, was quite powerful but not as harsh as it seems on the album. At the end, Neil referred to the 'phalanx of photographers at the front' (impressive vocabulary, eh?) and said that he had been trying to put his good side out to them, but it was no use. I'm certain the press will prove otherwise.
 
At that stage, the first of many paper aeroplanes landed near his feet, and he stopped to admire its sleek construction before reading the question noted inside it: what was the meaning of 'sinker lips,' as in Don't Ask Why's 'breathing heavy in her sinker lips' (as opposed to 'syphilis, which is what I heard at first). Neil eventually seemed to choose his favourite explanation, that he'd seen women's lips that could sink any man. Lisa, now standing beside Neil, picked up another aeroplane but determined it unsuitable for Neil-viewing, and he accepted her censorship.

Next came a lovely old friend in Take A Walk, which Neil introduced by saying that it was a really old Split Enz song, which brought enthusiastic applause before he even announced the title, making me feel a bit less lonely in my feeling old. The refreshed version, in front of lovely kaleidoscope images on the screen, was absolutely brilliant. I do wish he'd release songs like that as a 'B-side' on a single, as he was now singing it with a more experienced and powerful voice, in the style of a new century, but still looking like he did all those years ago when I was a teenager enjoying his music. Hat Guy moved to the keyboards during this number-everybody seemed to play at least 12 instruments, although not all at one time.

Neil then introduced this talented band: apart from Janeane Garofalo and Hat Guy, it included Sebastian Steinberg on bass, Dave Hill on drums, and later someone who I knew as Late Older Guy, as he would usually walk on stage well after the song had begun, to do beautiful things to the piano, as if he'd been caught out in the loo or something and only just realised where he was meant to be. Neil later introduced him as Paul Jeffrey, and I got the impression that he doubled as the sound mixer, which would explain his constant tardiness. What an efficient set up.

Neil introduced each band Member with an impressive title, such as the Earl of Lester (well, I made that one up but thought it sounded appropriate, considering..) and explained that he'd visited the House of Lords that day, which contained more gold than his grandfather's fillings. He suggested that it should be looted really, in, say, a May Day riot. Fortunately, no one arrested him for inciting a riot, and so he began gently strumming his acoustic guitar and treated us to Wherever You Are, the first song on the album that I welcomed as more typical of the Neil Finn music I'd always loved. Late Older Guy came on mid-way to contribute some lovely tinkering of the piano, and the whole number was gorgeous and smooth. Somehow it sounded like a song that he had been performing, and we had been enjoying, for years.

Neil proceeded to seek confirmation from the audience that, despite a fan recently gushing over a previous Neil Finn performance at the Shepherd's Bush Empire years ago, he had never actually played there before tonight. Another paper aeroplane's contents were then read out in good spirits, though he didn't mention which song its engineer had requested, just that the sender had added 'Go on, it would be fun!' Neil apparently didn't agree, and instead he asked Sean (Hat Guy) to give a quick impromptu performance on the keyboards, and Sean sang a sweet quick ditty that must have been called Baby Doll and sounded just like Ben Folds Five.

The pair then moved into a magnificent version of Not the Girl You Think You Are, where everyone in the venue could feel Neil's crystal vocals, as well as delight in hearing them.

As Sebastian switched to stand-up bass, Neil announced that he wanted to play a game of Band Challenge, where the audience should request anything obscure that they didn't think the band would know, and he would try to teach the song to them as they played along. These talented and professional musicians didn't look worried, although Neil later did encourage us to play a round of Band Challenge. Before that though, they played Pineapple Head, while a fan standing near the stage held up a doll that might have been Bert from Sesame Street but whose silhouette looked remarkably like, well, a pineapple head. Neil didn't notice. Lisa was playing what looked like a ukulele but was no doubt some ancient sophisticated lyre type thing, but all I could think of when she first picked it up was George Formby. Thankfully, she didn't launch into any songs about cleaning windows, but I must admit that, though it blended in occasionally throughout the song, a lot of the time it sounded as though she were still tuning or playing a different number. Still, it added a certain charm.

When someone called out a request for Tombstone, Neil then delighted in the first opportunity to play Band Challenge, and first called out the chords to them, before running through it as though the record were on 78 rpm, or as though he were George Formby, and then after the 30-second lesson, the band picked up on the song and created some wonderful music. Neil's voice was typically amazing and strong, and then he stopped dead in the middle of the song and asked the audience which chord he should be in when singing the 'Make a new man out of me' part, before trying a few and then progressing with the chord of E. At the end, he announced that he'd just remembered that he'd stopped playing that song with Crowded House because he thought it
sucked, so that would be the last airing it would ge t. He also mentioned that a friend disliked the song as he couldn't understand what rolling back a tombstone entailed. Hmmmm.

Before settling into the waltz-y feel of the next song, Last To Know, Neil explained that it was about 'when you disappear up your own ass' and the only person who can tell you is the person closest to you, but they do it over the phone after they've gone. He then quickly added that that had never happened to him, of course! During this number, Sean switched to an interestingly aqua-coloured electric guitar, and Late Older Guy arrived later to play piano again. I noticed that he reminded me of the actor/director Albert Brooks, so as he was sitting beside the drummer, Dave Hill, who someone on the list suggested looked a bit like John Malkovich, and near Lisa aka Janeane Garafolo, it was turning out to be quite a Thespian evening.

Amazingly, someone, perhaps in the spirit of Band Challenge, then called out for the 1976 Split Enz song 'Matinee Idyll,' always sung by Tim, and Neil managed to run through a verse and the chorus for us, albeit at George Formby speed. He must have an amazing memory; I can't imagine he was even involved in many performances of that one, though I may be wrong (hey, I was 10 at the time).

After a fine rendition of Any Time, a song that should make us all think about mortality, with Lisa still providing backing vocals that were spot-on, Neil introduced the legendary Johnny Marr. I must admit, I probably focused too much on Morrissey during Smiths performances on television in the 80s, so I can't remember what Johnny looked like then, but today he looks like something from Oasis with a Suzi Quatro haircut. Still, it was wonderful to have him on stage, two great songwriters performing side by side, and Johnny contributed electric guitar (including an occasional stint on a gold Bill Haley-looking 50s-style deal) throughout the evening, as well as an occasional mouth organ solo and some backing vocals. First, he joined Neil on electric guitar-and Sean on aqua-blue guitar-for an invigoratingly loud  version of Loose Tongue. I know you will all kill me for saying this, but I sat there trying to think what past band this number reminded me of-Lynard Skynard? No. Grateful Dead? No, I don't really know them anyway. Then it dawned on me: The Osmond Brothers' Crazy Horses. I know, I know-I'm so ashamed. I have committed blasphemy and will presently go pommel myself with a wet carp.

I have to admit that I was glad when Loose Tongue ended, as I was blinded by the light show in my foolish attempt to look at the performers, whilst being incessantly battered with several seriously bright flashing lights. It was rather interesting, but then, silly me, I do have this tendency to try to watch people who are on stage for some reason. Still, live and learn.

Next, shortly after the start of a gentler Driving Me Mad, Late Older Guy joined the band and Johnny Marr contributed backing vocals. Following that, the audience burst into a frenzy of requests (via shouts vs paper aeroplanes), and after hearing Throw Your Arms Around Me, Neil advised that people had been requesting that for weeks, but he still had not done it-nor did he on this night. When they tried to start the next number, Neil pointed out that 'sound would be good,' and said that Paul (aka Late Older Guy/Albert Brooks) must still be 'luxuriating in the afterglow' (what appropriate wording!) of playing the keyboards, which is what makes me think that Late Older Guy doubled as Sound Mixer Guy. How marvellous that he is able to contribute such lovely keyboard playing, as well. When they got sound, they gave us Secret God.

Neil then shared with us that Johnny Marr had kindly driven them to their gig in Plymouth the other night-the only problem being that the gig was actually in Portsmouth. Johnny leapt to the mike to explain that he quite liked Plymouth, so presumably he has some sort of homing instinct for which he is not responsible. He then performed his own song-even singing lead vocals, something new to me-called On the Corner, I believe, with Neil singing backing vocals and playing guitar. I noticed the addition of another band member who lurked almost silently behind the John Malkovich the Drummer, occasionally hitting a tambourine, but occasionally just lurking, presumably spotting the drummer in case he suddenly fell backwards. Hmmm.

Neil then introduced one of his favourite songs, the old Smiths hit There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. I was depressed enough to be a huge Smiths fan during the 80s, and I, too, loved this song, but I guess I always knew Neil had great taste. It was amazing to hear his take on the song, and I can't say I was disappointed that he didn't writhe about like Morrissey used to
whilst singing it. Though that would have been interesting.

With several crashed paper aeroplanes now lying ignored behind Neil's feet, he began a sort of Eastern (ie Asian vs Ipswich-ian) chant, joined by Lisa, which led us to a fabulously-forgive the word: rocking rendition of She Will Have Her Way. Everyone on stage was bouncing to the beat and apparently enjoying it as much as we were. With that, they all left the stage, about an hour after they had begun.

I was holding out for that performance of I Got You that everyone seemed to be enjoying elsewhere, so despite my usual nerves about how I could get back to Charing Cross in time for my last train home, I gladly stayed put, as did my friend who was recovering from flu (apologies to all of you who left the gig feeling sniffly for some reason) who had arrived saying that she might need to leave quite early, but understandably could not bring herself to leave once the concert started.

We were rewarded with the band returning to play Private Universe-Johnny with his Bill Haley guitar, Lisa on the ELO violin and backing vocals, Neil and the audience providing lead vocals. They did very well, too, not shouting obnoxiously as some people do, but blending in beautifully-largely because I thoughtfully only lip-synched so as not to ruin the magical beauty with my uncontrollable screeching.

They finished, for the time being, with Turn and Run, probably my favourite song from Nil Fun-possibly tied with Into the Sunset, which was not performed. The band played musical chairs again, with Sean ending up on keyboards and Lisa on guitar. Lisa's backing vocals really fit in splendidly with Neil's vocals and helped take the song to new heights.

After that, Neil sang another Smiths song, How Soon Is Now?, the one that always reminds me of the Elephant Man with its wonderful 'I am human and I need to be loved.' It's quite strange to hear Neil singing these types of songs as he isn't convincing as a miseryguts, as Morrissey was, even if the words were Johnny's. I don't always like covers at concerts, particularly
when the songwriter in question is so prolific and talented-and one could say that the three Johnny Marr songs possibly cost us Into Temptation, Into the Sunset and other pleasant prepositional phrases -but I viewed this as a unique opportunity to hear a singer we love perform semi-classic songs with a new twist, whilst also sharing with us songs that must be important to him, that may have helped shape his songwriting direction. Mind you, I might not have said as much if he were covering Celine Dion songs, not that there really are Celine Dion songs. (On the other hand, seeing Neil sing that Titanic number would have been intriguing, though I would have missed it as I would have had to have left before listening to that song ever again).

Neil quickly read out another paper plane message about a fan who fell asleep at a previous concert (clearly they hadn't played Crazy Horses at that one), and then there was almost an audible sigh of relief and adoration when Neil began singing the magnificent Four Seasons in One Day. Neil remained on acoustic guitar, with both Sean/Hat Guy and Janeane Garofalo on
keyboards, and Johnny Marr took a break, presumably to have a Kit-Kat.

When Neil began strumming the beginning of the next song, I almost thought  he was going to launch into Mike and the Mechanics' Over My Shoulder, but instead went with Weather With You, after commenting on the typically English weather (these days) that tricked him into thinking that Spring had finally arrived this morning, only to turn grey and mucky again later. 'But we're not here for the weather,' he added, though I suppose few people do actually choose to visit this country for that reason. Johnny returned and he and Sean on aqua-guitar made a wonderful job of the notable guitar riff amongst other things. Neil could hardly stop smiling whilst singing, which was refreshing as some performers would either refuse to play an old hit or dread doing so, feeling exhausted by and bored with it. Though maybe he was thinking about an obscene joke he'd read in a paper aeroplane, who knows. The song was magnificent fun, any way. It was never my favourite as it seems to be that of so many, though it's perfectly likeable, but it certainly came to life tonight.

At the end of Weather, Neil divided the audience in two sections and got them to clap on odd beats, then to try to sing separate lines at the same time, which was surprisingly difficult, so most of us shamefully fell apart in our duties. He clearly was aware of that and amused by the difficulty, as he demonstrated by rubbing his tummy whilst patting his head at the same time. I always knew he was a man of many talents.

They left the stage again at 10.20pm, getting dangerously close to my train-departure time (ah, the perils of being a suburbanite), but I just couldn't leave. It was certainly worth remaining for a fabulous peaceful rendition of the Finn song Last Day of June, which despite Neil's voice finally sounding like it was time for a rest, still rang out throughout the horrible redness of the gaudy theatre in spectacular fashion. This song is so much better live, though it was a shame to be Tim-less. Finally, the band re-joined Neil for the last energetic song, which might have been The Climber, but to be honest, I can't recall as I was enjoying it so thoroughly whilst panicking madly about whether I would be sleeping on the park benches across from the theatre. Even if that had been necessary, it certainly would have been worth it. Instead, I enjoyed a tremendously entertaining evening hearing superb performances of magnificent songs, whilst still managing to run like mad to get my train, where I sat smugly beside a geeky looking chap who spent the entire journey pouring over a Jimmy Nail programme, clearly relishing the concert he'd just attended. Naturally, I could not have been more jealous.
 

(Sorry for the lack of decent photos; I was far away with slower film than usual and did not want to use a flash and disturb everyone--including the bouncers.)

Copyright 2001 by TC. All rights reserved.
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