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Neil Finn - Royal Festival Hall, London on 3 May 2014 (Dizzy Heights Tour)
Having got carried away with the joy of it all, I hope to cut this review down when I get a chance, but for now, skimming is advised!
After a placid, enchanting half hour set by the mellifluous voiced Kiwi singing-poet Hollie Fullbrook as Tiny Ruins, latterly joined by Neil Finn’s drummer and guitarist (on bass), the happily short break ended when Talking Heads were replaced on the Royal Festival Hall’s speakers by a sort of tip-toe-towards-the-mystery music, which gradually became more urgent like a Countdown round running out of time. The lights went down, then rose to reveal a band fully in place, bathed in remarkable blue light. The backdrop for the evening was like an aerial view of a psychedelic hedge maze, seemingly made of crepe paper flowers, swirling across the screen in bright jewel tones of green, purple, yellow, red, and blue. The spectacular effect stilted the cheers as we took it in with a breathless amazement and waited to the tone of outstretched chords for the band to got to work.
When the Finn Brothers arrived in Regent’s Park and their first Hammersmith gig in 2004, they boomed onto the stage to Anything Can Happen, a breathlessly exciting start that is clearly memorable today. Tonight, Neil took a chilled approach; we brought sufficient excitement so you could say we didn’t need more to pounce on us up front, and a slower, easy number actually worked. The band had our full attention as the audience had not yet become the shouty feature of all Neil Finn gigs, as he has a PhD in banter and regularly rewards his friendly hecklers with witty riposte and the songs they requested. Tonight, he delivered a sharper show with a well-rehearsed band, wasting no time veering off course without good reason, but still injecting fun and some surprises, leading us to the inevitable party environment at the end.
The chilled beginning was Impressions, the first song on his new album, and Neil Finn OBE was smartly dressed in a grey jacket and trousers with a spotted dark shirt, seated at the grand piano stage right. When I heard his webcast previewing the album last year, this first song, then Divebomber and the title track worried me that he was releasing a lounge-lizard sleepy mellow mood experiment nearly all in falsetto, and I tweeted during the live webcast that it had a real chilled smooth, jazzy vibe, which Neil astonished me by bemusedly reading out. He disagreed with it in the friendliest manner, or at least to the ‘jazzy’ bit, which I’d conceded having heard the rest, when I stopped worrying.
Tonight, Impressions, which has grown on me but still was a brave choice as a potentially sleepy start, worked wonderfully and settled us as we drank in the colours and observed the new band. I tend to view strangers with suspicion and I was disappointed not to have the strings with Victoria Kelly who joined Neil on his initial webcast and at his heavenly preview of the album in St James’s Church Piccadilly last Thanksgiving. For all I knew, this band could feature a pedal steel guitarist and a banjo trio. Thankfully, it did not, and was full of convivial people we warmed to right away, all of them astonishing talents. Near me was vocalist Lisa Tomlins, who apparently also pole dances but did not do so tonight, dressed in a long, black one-shouldered dress, who won me over quickly with her delight and enthusiasm. Despite having the power to belt out songs like a gospel singer, she knew when to sing subtly just to add flavour. She danced on the spot and helped electrify the evening, shaking her reddish waves. At times, her talent and sense of fun reminded me of Robin Clark, a Bowie backing singer and the big voice on Simple Minds hits like Alive and Kicking. I was glad she was there.
Another singer in the band was songwriter Jesse Sheehan, who mostly played guitar and shared smooth backing vocals, drawing interest on stage with his neat pile of fiery red curls atop his chiselled features and serious, hidden-depth glances. Yet another singer songwriter in the band was the opening act, Hollie Fullbrook, with her cello and acoustic guitar, so there was an admirably strong vocal contingent that increased the show’s polish.
Chilled or not, this was anything but a weak opening. Busy trills from Holly’s cello, fantastically harmonising voices, and big bass from Neil’s’ wife Sharon with impressive kettle-sounding drumming from young Alistair Deverick (now in a dressier shirt and bigger drum set than in the opening set with Hollie, who grew up on the same street), all turned the number into a thumping track with surprising energy. During the wild welcoming cheers at the end, Neil declined to traverse the stage in a boring traditional manner and instead stood up on the piano bench, stepped up onto the top of what I hope was not a valuable grand piano belonging to the South Bank, and walked across the lid of it, and jumped off the far edge to grab a red Roy Orbison style guitar, to devilish rogue effect.
Wasting no time, he strummed out the lovingly familiar introduction to Distant Sun. I saw Neil Finn exactly 13 years ago today at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (read about it here: http://aboutlastnight.org.uk/NFinnSBE01.htm), again amidst tube strikes, when he opened with Distant Sun and was later joined on stage by Johnny Marr, with whom he played some tunes earlier this week, and to whom he gave an unplanned nod later this evening. Tonight, Holly added acoustic guitar to the two electrics, and a second acoustic guitarist appeared on the far side of the piano, a chap who resembled young Alistair the drummer but with wonderful Neil-like floppy fringe. I assumed he was one of the roadies that Neil sometimes welcomes on like an apprentice, but he exuded great skill and confidence when he moved front and centre and stood playing like Neil’s Siamese twin. Neil, beaming throughout the song, wandered towards the others during his busy but brief electric guitar solo as the many warblers wowed with their simple backing ‘Ahhhhs’. Maybe that’s a factor that made a lot of the early Beatles songs, many strong vocalists ahhh-ing and la-ing in the background.
At the end of this absolutely joyous rendition of an ever-improving fine pop song, Neil said “Good evening, London” to welcoming roars. He mused over which minor royal might be occupying the royal box, in hopes that at least a second cousin might have turned up, and the first of the eager friendly-hecklers yelled out from on high “Everyone stand up!” Even Neil said it was a bit early for that, but delighted the heckler by saying he had been impressed by his dancing during that song. He explained we were welcome to do whatever we liked during his shows, partly because his band was so relaxed (which I assume is Kiwi for amazing quality), and he introduced them to already adoring roars, beginning with Lisa, then Jesse, to whom he’d just discovered he might be related through ancestors from the same Irish town. He pointed out Hollie “who you saw earlier as Tiny Ruins” with a genial respect, and sweetly said, “I’m very pleased and proud to present Sharon Finn to you on bass guitar”. I always admire their evident mutual adoration, friendship and harmony after two sons and 32 years of marriage. Sharon was tucked in the back, usually playing with one foot on the drum platform, half facing drummer Alistair, who sometimes played a deep drum with a mallet in one hand and whacked a snare with a stick in the other, looked about 12 years old and can’t be that much older. Yet he’s already played for many bands, including Laurence Arabia, with whom both of Neil’s sons have played (New Zealand’s a small world). He sometimes endearingly shook his head from side to side like Ringo, but later adopted a new stillness. Neil’s introductions also clarified that the extra acoustic guitarist earlier was not just a cheeky roadie but American composer/engineer/musician Andrew Everding, who Neil said was on keyboards, occasional guitar, and just wandering around as The Ranger.
He introduced the title track of their new album, Dizzy Heights, which received a warm welcome. They’d performed this on BBC2’s Later Live….with Jools Holland a week before, and I thought it a slight shame that they didn’t choose a stronger track from the album, but happily most tweets I saw about his performance praised it as the most worthy on the show http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZzTQfXFjlM&feature=youtu.be . It can perhaps seem dreamy and subdued compared to some of the stomping pop and edgier or tuneful songs he’s produced over the decades (along with gripping rip-your-heart-out ballads), but tonight it was vastly more exhilarating. Perhaps it was feeling a part of it, surrounded by the astounding acoustics of the Festival Hall, with everyone bathed in striking purple and green lighting and a sound you can feel. We all adored the remarkably sharp performance, and even Neil was beaming at the end.
Someone in the audience, perhaps the sole stand-up guy, shouted something incomprehensible, and for the first of many times tonight, I admired Neil’s ability to understand these (drunken?) mumblings; he’s just got a skill. (I’ll bet he’d even manage to understand the Beeb’s Jamaica Inn.) This guy apparently yelled that something was in need of tuning, which Neil joked was a bit harsh, strummed his strings to confirm they were in good order, so said maybe he was referring to Rowan (who was the real roadie/guitar tech/assistant), who Neil said reset his ‘little boards’ when he forgot to do something. Rowan was from Te Awamutu, Neil added, and the mention of the Finn’s hometown, immortalised in song (Tim’s Haul Away from Split Enz’s Time and Tide and Neil’s Mean To Me from Crowded House’s debut spring to mind), garnered the usual screams. Neil thought the screams must come from fellow Te Awamutu natives (Te Awamutuns? I hope not; that sounds like mutants) and said they’d come a long way to see other people from Te Awamutu. Seeing the chance to converse with Neil Finn, albeit across 2500 people in the sold-out venue, others started to shout randomly at him, and he charmingly replied that it was good that we were rowdy, and encouraged us to get it out of our system.
I first saw the Finns live at Hammersmith Odeon (now Apollo) in the early 1990s after I’d moved to London, at the beginning of Crowded House’s Together Alone tour when it was still quite a sharp production with Tim Finn in tow, and it was utter heaven after worshipping them from way afar in the States for over a decade. I remember, when we got MTV in 1981, rushing to the television every hour to watch the rocket go off and see what videos they promised to play in the hour, and because (as I recently learned) they had so few, I usually got lucky with my favourite band Split Enz. The treasured I Hope I Never was on steady rotation with Neil’s hits I Got You and One Step Ahead, the latter featuring magical white shoes stepping slowly down skewed red and blue steps to reveal Neil in an almost beatnik mime costume, a calm change from the mad make-up and costumes of earlier Split Enz, and I loved it. It was desperately exciting then, and though I never got to see Split Enz live, it’s a joy to see the fantastic Finns in whatever guise when they come to London; they are such spectacular showmen with staggering repertoires.
Here I was again, joyously, with Neil saying the next song would have been played at their 1980 Split Enz gig at that venue, of which he’d just received a tape but hadn’t played. It’s not on my copy, but that audience missed a treat that we did not. A few unrecognisable guitar chords led to the unmistakable rhythm of the magnificent One Step Ahead. I couldn’t help but picture tasty Tim doing that odd arched-back dancer’s stretch to rise from the floor in the video, still wearing an early Split Enz clown expression, as young Neil sang like a delicately brushed snare, looking up through his fringe in a tantalising way that Princess Diana surely copied. (Watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NduGJ0F5sdI ). Thirty-four years later, Neil singing this in front of us was a dream. A more prominent guitar solo extended the da-da-da-da-da bit with which we helped, some of us teens again and giddy from the bliss. Many people stood up for this one.
Pausing only for applause, the band switched to a different sound and era, a tune from the new album that sounded like a psychedelic dream sequence from the Sixties. The band bashed it out with exuberance and the many skilled voices made easy work of the multi-layered harmonies, with a guitar-less Jesse focusing on his vocal contribution whilst jiggling to the beat. Pony Ride will never be a favourite of mine, but it was made to be played live. I confess that when I first heard the album, I condemned this song as being a bit Partridge Family on LSD or Partridge Flower Children, but tonight it was a fiery number that more pleasantly put me in mind of something from the Yellow Submarine animated Beatles film. Somewhat surprisingly, Neil said at the end that it was his 92-year-old father’s favourite song off the new album, but he supposed that it might remind him of his youth. He said he could hold the lyrics up to a computer screen and get his dad to sing it via Skype and asked Rowan to fetch the PC in case his dad was online now.
“But first, a song”, Neil said, glancing down at the set list, nodding and moving to the piano. Having spoken of his own father, he introduced the song that seemed like a message to his sons, In My Blood. I recall his being slightly startled in an interview when the Guardian’s Andrew Street interpreted it as a song about his eventual death, which he’d have to teach and perform with his musician sons, and Neil said it wasn’t nearly as dark as that. In the Guardian Culture Blog interview in February, Neil explained that “there are certain times when you feel something unmistakable, and my theory is that you inherit memories from your ancestors: memories of feelings, pure feelings” through the DNA, thinking that “if you have a really intense experience, you pass that on to your children and it’s responsible for certain ways that they respond to certain things, little mysterious elements of character.” That was the interview where he made what transpired to be an incendiary comment when pressed for advice for young singer Lorde that she should get out of New Zealand, which he later backtracked on to some extent, but he said it was mainly because she might not be hounded so much by the press and it wouldn’t be a bad move to get among the centre of operations in somewhere like New York. Seems uncontroversial, really.
Tonight, he told us this song was a lot to do with generations and the things that you inherit. After I initially fell so hard for White Lies and Alibis in the live webcast and at St James’s Church Piccadilly (definitely not the album version), it took me brief while to realise that this song is another remarkable jewel on the album. Not only incredibly catchy with its simple refrain, again benefiting tonight from several extraordinary voices, with captivating lyrics. Curiously, at one point, all those singers not playing an instrument just held their hands up, clapping them silently in unison with their fingers pointed to the ceiling as though delivering some message of faith that was lost on me, but entrancing. Red light bathed the stage and Holly’s cello added depth, with a spotlight on Neil’s impassioned roars of the peerless “How I wish that I could come back again, how I wish that I could do this again”, which was mind-blowing after “I’m hoping that I won’t have to miss it all”. I could see how one could view it as sad, as a father speaking to those who were born of his blood when he’s finishing his life, but I saw it as joyous that Neil had so loved his life so far that he was wishing he could do it again, as opposed to do it differently, as many people wish as they get older. Really, this is a champion song, with Neil pelting out power on the piano on those indelible lines, and I adore the song all the more.
During the massive cheers and whistles, Neil moved back centre stage and took up his red Roy Orbinson-ish guitar. He said that Rowan had tried to Skype Neil’s dad but he wasn’t online now, so he asked Rowan to try random relatives. He then again impressively interacted with some indecipherable shouter from the audience—how does he do that?—”Maybe, but not right now,” he answered to whatever the request was, because the band didn’t know it. He said there were 250 songs to play on this tour, and they’d do about 10% of them tonight (true! He did). He said he’d stretched it a bit in in Dublin because they’d made the mistake of telling him that they had a “soft curfew”, and he’d do his best to ignore the curfew tonight (to cheers, but regular Festival Hall visitors were lamenting that that seemed unlikely)—until the point when they’d get fined. Well, tours have budgets.
I was actually impressed by how well the show was moving along so far, no time-wasting; every minute was crammed with pleasurable performance, focusing on the cream without endless jams filling the time. Which I know some people enjoy, perhaps the performers most of all, but I would rather hear several treasured songs instead of one 10-minute tune where six minutes are just bland repeated rhythm with occasional prog-length guitar solos, or overlong audience sing-alongs that are complicated to set up (“This side, you take this part, now practice….”) I know, as a hard-bitten veteran of too many such gigs, Victor Meldrew is taking over my head, and I can’t shake the memories of an unusually painful Crowded House gig in 1994 at a distant Wembley Arena in uncomfortable seats with dreadful sound and too few facilities, when it was getting late to get back to London and yet drunks were being invited on stage to sing badly songs that had already been performed. My husband gave up and went to wait outside (he’s now an ex-husband, of course). Thankfully, there was none of that tonight, everything was tight and perfect, but still interactive, not cold like a Kylie Showgirl performance presented to us. We felt very much a part of this enchantment, and the legendary Finn family banter is crucial to the mix.
Neil introduced the next song as one he wrote with Sharon, having recently discovered that they could play music together. He loved how what started out as a laugh after dinner with him playing drums and her on bass, out of their comfort zones, ended up with her now playing bass on their tour, which drew cheers (and their Pajama Club album en route). “It’s better than golf or bridge,” he quipped, adding “I’m not feeling old at all, to tell you the truth.” They played Golden Child, another vaguely 60s psychedelic song with falsetto harmonies, which I hadn’t remembered from the Pajama Club album. The first few soft, nearly a cappella lines made me think, I confess, of an episode in Spinal Tap when the band were harmonising before plunging into something heavier, and then the song reminded me of the Moody Blues. Unusually for me, I enjoyed it most when the thundering drums took part and beat some shape into the song. The Finn family song did melt into something smashing, but I couldn’t make out a single word. I looked them up later to find they’re poetic about parenting, such as “Youth….They roar like lions / Childlike underneath / There lies the need / The right way to be / Behind the scenes / Daily to feed and water / The flower of youth.” The pleasant song finished rather quickly to gleeful applause, followed by more indiscriminate shouting for requests, to which Neil cheerfully batted back “No” a few times as he quietly tuned his guitar. This tour had a plan.
I like how he’s acknowledged in interviews that people choose to shout out the most obscure songs from his past, as if trying to outdo each other in their devotional fandom and expertise, but he’s said there’s a reason those songs are obscure. I admire him for catching on and not pandering to the practice, even if it’s because he says he can’t recall the lyrics or the song.
An Antipodean woman in the audience enquired loudly what Neil had done today, and he told us that he made the most of the pleasant London weather strolling through Haggerston Park then Victoria Park (really? I had pictured him staying somewhere swankier than Hackney, though Victoria Park’s a little jewel.) Then his miraculous skills for understanding any old bellowed grumble finally failed so he agreeably replied “Whatever you said then, yep.” When asked where his older son Liam was, Neil said he was in New York with his brother Elroy, that “they make an album with us and then they cut us loose, that’s what the last song was about.” He recommended that we listen to Liam’s forthcoming album called The Nihilist (which I note has an intriguing mix of track titles such as "Snug As F**k", "Helena Bonham Carter" and "Wrestle with Dad".) I wonder if Liam’s still furry; from a young age, he seems to have come disguised as a bearded yeti-hunting log cabin dwelling Yukon man, perhaps as a tribute to his dad’s song Log Cabin Fever, as when I first saw him on this busy, accomplished appearance on Letterman in 2008 aged 25.
After tuning for a moment for another ‘song my brother and I wrote’, which is always a thrilling promise, he hit the unmistakable, powerful introduction to Finn’s Only Talking Sense. Jesse moved to piano and sang Tim’s part during the verses, with Lisa joining Neil for the chorus. The audience was thankfully reverential during these songs, and I found myself just enjoying the pleasure of sitting in an otherwise silent spectacular concert hall staring at Neil a few feet in front of me, still making incredible music 30 years after I first fell for his and Tim’s work. How privileged I am that my favourite performers are still so active, still so talented, and with one (or two) of the most formidable repertoires around. Thanks to the welcome lack of rebellious moustache on his face, Neil still looks so young, seemingly like he just stepped out of Split Enz (until you check an old video, but realise that actually now he looks right; then, he was clearly a green shoot). And this is such a splendid song and yet one that I would probably fail to name if asked to pick my top 20 Finn songs, not just because of the stiff competition, but it took a few years to hit me with its grandeur.
After the roars died down and Rowan changed Neil’s guitar to the beige-y one (sorry to get so technical), Neil said he was going to do a run of Tim and Neil Finn songs, and the next was one they’d become fond of over time. When asked by an audience woman where his brother was (all these questions! Where’s your second cousin now?}, Neil said Tim was in Australia having a holiday with his kids, but let’s get him on Skype. That would have been fun for a duet (on buffering delay?) or just a chat. Rowan then called out that he had Liam and Elroy on Skype, but by the time he placed the magic MacBook on the grand piano, the connection had gone and just left a frozen frame of Neil’s dad. Neil said to keep calling so we could get a few people lined up on laptops on the piano, which I thought was a wonderfully novel idea, if a bit Max Headroom (obscure 80s reference). Rowan returned with the MacBook, first showing it to Sharon, who smiled, and Neil announced that Sharon’s mum was on screen. (I couldn’t make out whether he called her Thelma or Anna or none of the above.)
Hilariously, Rowan placed the laptop on the piano near Lisa with the screen facing us, showing just what we all see when we Skype our parents—an ordinary looking woman sitting in her living room with too much of her ceiling showing, but this time it was Neil Finn’s in-laws sitting in their lounge in New Zealand, and we shrieked a welcome. After Neil returned to work, playing the unmistakable intro to Suffer Never, the band and Sharon’s in-laws faced us. We saw Sharon’s mum get bigger on the screen as she leaned towards her own laptop across the world to adjust it to include Sharon’s Dad in the frame. It was deliciously surreal as the band delivered a highly professional rendition of this great song, and the audience not only watched them but also, sitting atop the piano being played by Jesse, this conventional older couple patiently looking at us looking at them. At one point, Neil glanced over and smiled to see them but otherwise focused on his work.
The Festival Hall can be Gestapo-like about photos, and I still kick myself for not ignoring the security beside me years ago when I was in the front row with a camera in my bag, and Ray Davies came on for the encore in his Union Jack suit, and I just couldn’t brave it. (I don’t think they kick you out or seize your camera like in the States, but they’re still so mean and scary). Anyway, at tonight’s concert, I eventually snatched a few subtle photos, mostly once people stood up around me, and they’re blurry as I didn’t use the flash and pulled my camera away too quickly—but to the right of blurry Lisa here, you can just about see the top of Sharon’s dad’s head on the laptop screen.
The end of this tune was a symphony of splendid nearly a cappella voices. Neil called out to ask his in-laws what they’d thought of it, but clocked that their view was only of us, so they were re-situated to get a view of the stage, and I could no longer see them. He spoke again of his desire to have something revolutionary with all the clan gathered on the piano via laptops. Neat, though I doubt that scene with Michelle Pfieffer on the piano in the Fabulous Baker Boys would have been so memorable if handled in this modern day way.
Neil strummed a few chords on an acoustic guitar as a couple walked past just below him in the aisle in front of the stage, having been to the bar for some beer, and Neil said it was like the walk of shame down there. He said that at least the bar was still open, because in Dublin, they’d closed it when the band came on, but he hadn’t realised. So he kept asking for someone to buy him a Guinness, and as none was forthcoming, he became more abusive of the audience, asking what’s happened in Dublin when no one will even get you a Guinness. Eventually one was brought to him, but he said he really tasted their patience as they stood there thirsty for three hours as he drank the only drink in the house. I’m sure they felt it was a fair.
Moving on, Neil tantalised us with, “If I point in this direction, something reckless will happen,” and he pointed with musical wizardry towards the sound desk off stage or the keyboards (which for most of the gig for me was just Andrew’s tapping foot visible under the grand piano) to cue the sensational shrill string jostling with joyful piano intro to Sinner, Neil’s debut solo single in 1998, which is another song I’ve come to appreciate more over time, principally because of that sound byte. BAFTA-award winning producer, composer and ex-Blow Monkey Marius De Vries gets a co-write credit for the song; he’s worked with everyone. Seriously, everyone. To name a few, David Bowie, Pet Shop Boys, Robbie Robertson, Rufus Wainwright, U2, Annie Lennox, Kylie, The Sugarcubes, Coldcut, Cathy Dennis, Brian Eno, Lisa Stansfield, PJ Harvey, David Gray, Madonna, Bebel Gilberto, Elbow and Teddy Thompson. Jesse, who was now stage left with a different, big black and white Buddy Holly style guitar (you can tell I used to work as a guitar technician, can’t you?), reminded me a bit of the talented Teddy Thompson. The perfect Holly was now back on cello and backing vocals. Neil really went to town with the “like some forgotten soldier” line, and spent some of the song grinning, enjoying the moment. Not that he was grimacing and looking pained the rest of the time, just focused and taking things in, so the odd smile was an added delight. Lisa grabbed the mike from the stand and took over with some phenomenal singing and ad libbing at the end, as Neil and Jesse continued with the “See it, anyone, got my nose, got my blood” rhythm, until she ended on an impressively long, powerful, beautiful, operatic high note (not a Mariah Carey shrillness solely notable for its height but a note that sounded great instead). She then interplayed with Neil’s “I must walk this earth” repeats as he beamed at her. It was great she had a chance to dazzle so dynamically, and the crowd was thrilled.
Again not wasting time if one’s to fit in over 10% of a 250 song tour repertoire, Neil quickly introduced the next tune as being a West Coast song. That made me picture the Beach Boys or Frank Zappa until he said it was about watching the sun go down on the west coast of New Zealand. Something I hope to see one day. “There’s nothing like staying put,” he said, until you had to take off again when work picked up. His acoustic guitar was his only accompaniment as he sang stunningly the first verse of Into the Sunset from his second solo album One Nil, with the band joining in later, including more exquisite cello from Holly. Rarely prone to ordinary drumming, young Alistair played with a drumstick in his left hand and maracas in his right, and at one point, Neil wandered back to watch him. It took Alistair an age to realise, just managing a surprised sweet smile as Neil turned back to us. Pure poetry, this song: -
Watch how she
fades into the sunset
Vision spectacular in grace
Hunger for the world, travel
Stimulating discussion, lift me
Faster into the weakness
Off the wall into blackness, gifted
And I'm away from home
And it's a way of life and I'm a flyin' high.
He closed his eyes near the end, his voice again mixing stunningly with Lisa’s, accentuated by the hall’s outstanding acoustics, and the band was phenomenal, earning immense cheers.
As Neil moved back to the piano, he passed his mother-in-law watching from the laptop via Skype and said to Sharon, “Your mum is laughing at me”. He told her she was a big part of the show tonight, but noted that husband Dave had got bored and gone off to do other things. “You’ll put me off, Thelma (?),” he coyly told her as he picked up the laptop to show his wife, who waved, before palming them off to Rowan.
As a link to the next song that he said was about captivity, Neil said that, in a sense, Thelma and Dave were captives in the laptop. He hit a bleak chord on the piano, and the keyboards joined in with discordant sounds, which I realised were setting the scene for White Lies and Alibis. This was the most magnificent song when I first heard the webcast preview of his album, then in St James’s Church, a song I hummed and knew after just one hearing, and I couldn’t wait to own it and play it constantly. “This hell was not of my making” and “You do what you can to survive” could hail a powerful mantra, a theme song for so many people in trying situations, but it reflects a particular case, having been written after Neil met Damien Echols, whom he explained on the webcast was one of the West Memphis Three. That meant nothing to me but I’ve since glanced lightly into the case. Echols was one of three men who were convicted as teenagers in 1994 for murdering three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. It is a totally tragic and sickening case, when one thinks of the poor little boys taken from their families and the terror they would have felt before being killed allegedly as part of a Satanic ritual. It’s heartbreaking, but the song’s focus is on what some believe to be a miscarriage of justice for the men sentenced to death for the killings. A decision in 2010 by the Arkansas Supreme Court following newly produced DNA evidence saw them reach a deal with prosecutors whereby they ‘entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them’, which seems a bizarre state of affairs. They were sentenced to time served, which was over 18 years in prison, and released.
Neil was moved by a documentary that convinced him and many others that those men were innocent, and the song focuses on the horror of being imprisoned after having been wrongly convicted of a crime. It’s moving when one is allowed to listen to Neil’s masterly way of expressing it, with beautiful music and powerful lyrics and vocals. I was surprised it wasn’t the first single off the album until I heard the recorded version, which I’m afraid I found disappointing. It sounds like a young producer went mad tweaking knobs like a printer’s apprentice who designs his first poster by using every font. He seemed to think it would be well wicked to add loads of synth effects to create a sense of discordance, and the best sounds would be of a kid playing Space Invaders or Asteroids over the music, which is consigned to the background. The treatment is disheartening as the song was destined to be the greatest on the album and one of the most sublime I have heard for some time, but it’s been badly spoiled. I was looking forward to hearing it live again without that queer treatment.
Tonight, we thankfully had no 80s arcade game sounds layered on top, but the prevailing sense remained that the audience must be shown they should feel upset as they couldn’t otherwise sense that something was wrong from the stirring words and dark notes passionately sung by a genius. Jesse hit some dissonant wacca noises then odd ghostly sounds on his Bill Haley guitar (maybe a Gretsch G5420T Electromatic Hollow Body Guitar?) as Alistair beat the drums roughly and everyone seemed to concentrate on helping us feel the fabricated anguish through overly intense volume with a slight echo, all of which left me feeling the wind had been knocked out of me. Neil’s voice sounded a bit distorted in the chorus and we were battered with the odd sudden flash of bright white lights. At times a ghastly whirring noise poured machine-like out of the keyboards, although at least when the singers shouted out the vocals on the chanting bit, they didn’t sound like the murderous monks on the album. Still, I struggled to hear the poetry of an exceptional song behind this unnecessary set-dressing. It reminded me of the lamentable trend amongst television directors who thought the only way to convey to the audience a sense of confusion was to hand the camera to a skating baboon and spin him round ‘til we felt sick, as that’s the only way we cretins could comprehend how the character must feel, having presumably never managed it in the preceding century of filmmaking. I hate to be critical of a stupendous performance overall and a staggeringly breathtaking song, but I think you’ll gather that this staging was a slight disappointment, albeit vastly preferable to the album version. The gist of the song is still exquisite and I must acknowledge that they’d obviously like to stage it with a bit of drama.
But some nice person has put the original webcast version online, so you can enjoy the song in a purer sense here, as I first heard it in November 2013 live from New Zealand, and perhaps see why I was so overjoyed to know it and why I miss the sumptuous song I knew. It’s just before 15 minutes in. The song's perfect with muted drums, piano, subtle keyboards and strings, so you can hear the lyrics like the delicately desperate “She’s the only hope that I have left”, which is lost in psycho-monk voices on the album (which haven’t really worked since Tim’s Walking through the Ruins, and that was the 80s), and be moved by the words and music without unnecessary prods that are meant to stir you but irritate instead as you focus on being prodded. Do watch the video; isn’t it sublime? But probably Neil doesn’t often get the chance to create a grisly atmosphere; it’s an unusual song writing venture for him, and it was still outstanding tonight with tremendous talents performing it, and vastly superior to not hearing it at all.
After leaving just a minute for the applause, Neil dipped into dreamy vocals and everyone whistled as spots of yellow light filled the backdrop, and I recognised the preface to the song Divebomber. Indeed, the hall filled with the droning sound of divebombing aircraft, with Neil beginning the beautiful wails that paint that portrait. It was an odd choice for a first single of the new album, and I think many were pleased it wasn’t representative of it. Initially one had to wonder if this would be Neil’s BeeGees phase, as the first songs we heard had him singing falsetto. The song shows that he’s been in soundtrack mode, having penned and performed Song of the Lonely Mountain for The Hobbit, for which he had to “imagine things from a dwarven point of view” and which was shortlisted, but sadly not enough to get Neil on the show, as an Oscar contender.
Tonight, Sharon and Jesse had no instrument for most of Divebomber. It’s not a dance number or one you would sing along with in the car, but a diverting aural landscape, improving as it gains passion and energy. Particularly at the end with Neil and Jesse singing higher and Jesse joining Alistair’s drumming by bashing a snare set up on the front of the stage into a remarkable regimental drumroll. Neil plucked out deep notes on the piano as the impressions of planes still soared around us. It was pleasantly dark but the falsetto vocals meant I’d no idea what it was about. A layman’s interpretation of the lyrics that I had to read could be that he speaks of the risk of a relationship, trying to be a hero and save his loved one as they nearly die in a plane crash, then waking to find it was a dream and, although “it cannot be that bad”, “for all I know we’re high above the ground and there’s only one way down.” But that’s probably too simple. It was an admirable live rendition and enveloped us in the meditative state of it. We heard pleasantly pastoral, elaborate sonic textures from a distant earth, not just your typical tuneful Finn masterpiece.
….Like what followed. With only Neil lit at the piano, the others still in the darkness, he played a few appealing lines that led slowly into the hugely familiar introduction to the much loved Message to My Girl, which he still teased out before plunging into the full tune that brought excited cheers. The rest of the band filed off the stage single file apart from Jesse and Lisa, who joined Holly at the back. Neil sang his beautiful 1984 Split Enz hit just with piano and the three other singers, lit in ecclesiastical purple, giving some impressive holy ‘ahhhhhhhs’ to fill the background during the belting chorus. Dear Neil flubbed the first verse, but then he wrote it over 30 years ago (!) and does have about 60,000 words to remember, never mind all the notes on different instruments, emitting them at the same time in pleasant fashion, whilst supplying amiable stage banter in between. (For the curious of you, he sang ‘It’s wrapped up in conversation” instead of ‘It’s good to be detached and precious’, but then sang that line again in its right place in the second verse.) It was endearing. I got many lines of old familiar favourites muddled when I was lip syncing for the sake of those around me during the sing-alongs, and I wasn’t on stage with thousands hanging on my every amplified word. Eventually, Holly stood to share a mike with Jesse, with Neil’s voice skirting incredibly around the lines, eventually stretching out and repeating ‘I don’t wanna say’ at the end, holding ‘say’ out for ages, until his voice sounded half tired or emotional for half a second, and he led the heartfelt rendition to an end, wowing us all into whopping cheers.
Barely pausing, Neil thanked us and stared at the remaining band as he quietly counted in an absolutely stunning Don’t Dream It’s Over, with the only music from his piano and the remaining singers hitting some amazing (dizzy!) heights, but holding notes out subtly so as not to interfere with the splendour before us. The incredibly bewitching song still takes me back to the excitement of turning on MTV when at University and seeing that the other great Finn from my devastatingly defunct favourite band (I had Tim’s solo albums) was clearly in a new band that also produced brilliance. Now, Holly added cello, Lisa remained beside her while Jesse returned to the front, providing exquisite backing vocals, and I heard Andrew (‘The Leg”) providing a churchlike organ part on the keyboards (if not on the hall’s pipe organ; I could never see him but the hall did feel like a cathedral filled with grandeur), which producer Mitchell Froom had made such an instrumental (!) part of this song. Jesse provided the quiet guitar solo and for a brief second, there seemed to be a key clash with Neil’s arpeggio on piano, but then all was heavenly again. This peacefully gorgeous, slower piano version was far too moving for me to think much about the long-running joke with my friend Holly about the fuzzy corndog confusion after I misinterpreted an image in the video, so I won’t trouble you with it now….
The audience went understandably mad at the end, cheering for ages. I must cheer for the audience as this was the first concert I’ve been to in a while where people didn’t spoil the evening by talking loudly throughout as if the music was background in a bar (as at Dave Dobbyn/Don McGlashan) or shoving a video camera directly in front of my face to block my only slim line of sight of the stage so despite being up front (at Neil’s St James’s Church gig) I have to watch it on YouTube, or other tales of horror. Their deferential etiquette must be down to the respect that Neil amiably attacts and his ability to amuse us all between the songs that leave us awestruck.
As we cheered, Neil toasted us with a paper coffee cup (possibly not containing coffee), and the next incomprehensible round of shouting out tunes built into a frenzy. He returned to centre stage, put on a red electric guitar and smiled at some suggestions as he dismissed them ( ‘I’ve already done that on this tour’), then reacted to one by suddenly bursting into brother Tim’s on-stage staple, the frantic Split Enz song I See Red. That surprise got the audience excited, and Jesse joined in with his beige guitar and we sang along just as Neil gave it up after a few lines.
He said he’d rather do this song, and began playing a heavy guitar with Jesse by the pedals playing the fuzzy wacca-style guitar (let me know if I get too technical) that I don’t love, but which suits slightly funkier songs like Flying in the Face of Love, with the full band back on stage and creating a busy rhythm. Holly was on (acoustic) guitar now beside Sharon on booming bass, with Neil later launching into a beefy guitar solo that fit the song well. I found this tune from the new album much easier to appreciate when played live with such skill.
Still wasting no time, Neil paused for applause only briefly, then immediately brought us the joys of a thumping I Got You, his first hit with Split Enz, in a video I loved where he now looks inexplicably young being dramatic in front of a moving painting of the rest of the band, which young me so adored. Moving in that they move vs touching the heart. Some people stood up for this performance, mostly blocking my view of Jesse, but I understood their excitement. Quiet Holly joined the audience in singing the chorus and nearly danced a bit, and Neil played the solo as though he could barely control his guitar that had come to life on his own. He headed for Jesse and they nearly did a brotherly chest-butt (more friendly than a Glasgow kiss). The stage was bathed in pink and purple, and the lighting show—simple compared to the influx of busy slide shows and moving images on many concert backdrops these days—was utterly astounding all night.
As most of the eager crowd rose to their feet, Neil said there was no problem if we wanted to dance anywhere, then perhaps recalling a health and safety briefing, recited that there were certain spaces where we weren’t supposed to. I could sense the forehead veins bulging in the scary South Bank bouncers, but the front ‘beer walk of shame’ area was quickly filled with people from behind us. Safely hidden in the pack, everyone got out their phones and cameras as there seemed no way for the scary bouncers to reach them, although that later proved to be untrue. I also snapped a few (flashless and rushed so rubbish) pictures, now with heads in the way despite our great seats. Still, they remind me of the blissful night and give an idea of the divine colours on stage behind engaging musicians.
As more people poured up front, the band began Neil’s crowd-pleasing 1998 solo single, She Will Have Her Way, the one with the giant woman in the video. Everyone joyously delved into this, singing and dancing to the lively, cheery music. Even Neil’s guitar solo was fun, and tonight there were no pointless prog-length indulgences, and Neil seemed to revel in the song himself. Unfortunately, the band then (from what I could see through the heads) quickly bowed in unison and left the stage.
They’d come on stage just after 8.30pm, and it was now almost 10.15pm. We were told the show would finish at 10.30pm. Hmmm. It was hard to think immediately of what fantastic, much loved songs they’d left out. Now, I can think of quite a few from the first and third Crowded House album in particular, many less likely songs I adore, great songs from One Nil….well, zillions. Many Finn Brothers songs should be reserved for when Tim can be there, so I excused those. But later, I thought how odd that he skipped the surely radio-friendly Recluse--once you get past the odd effects at the start--from the new album. It’s a modern I Am a Rock, even sounding very like a particular Simon and Garfunkel tune at the end, with references to popular culture (like Game of Thrones care of Sharon, apparently), and it manages to rhyme ‘mental bliss’ and ‘no one to miss’ with what a stray dog does on a statue. Like the album itself, that track has really grown on me and I find myself humming it. I think being presented with a visual showcase of the tunes first from New Zealand and then in London last November helped us get to know the songs more comprehensively, perhaps developing in their natural habitat, in a sense.
We knew the band would come back and do more hits, and true to the terrific staging of the evening, they barely spent a few minutes off stage before returning and launching immediately into the fabulously rapid Locked Out. This song occasionally comes up on my iPod as I walk through Trafalgar Square on my way to work and starts me running madly across the mostly empty space at that time of morning, twirling around the lions, splashing in the fountains, and climbing up on that great big blue chicken—but only in my mind as I continue to walk calmly towards work, but with a spring in my step thanks to my internal adventure. It never fails to pick me up; I recommend it. On stage, you can imagine that this phenomenal band made it staggeringly rousing. The pounding beats as each musician seemed to jump about, some bashing tambourines and anything else going, explosive guitar solos and blasting drums combined with the busy strobe lights nearly made me feel epileptic, but just took me to a joyous high. Lisa seemed to have got so carried away in shaking her head as fast as the tambourine that she possibly kicked a drink onto one of the audience standing at the base of the stage, as I saw her sweetly mouthing a very concerned ‘Sorry!’ to them, but it gave them a great tale to tell. I imagine whatever it was came from Lisa’s magic tray of stuff that was beside her all night, which contained a paper coffee cup and other things I thought might keep her sated. At one point, she carefully inspected what looked like a tin can with the label removed as though she were hungry for a bit of soup, but then she shook it to the beat, revealing it was yet another percussive instrument like the shakers she’d banged against tambourines earlier whilst singing astoundingly.
Now we were foaming at the mouth, and Neil only kept us waiting long enough to say breathlessly, “Now that you’re on your feet, I’ll give you something to dance to.”
He certainly did. His gift was another early Split Enz blast, History Never Repeats, delivered just as frantically as the last song, and full of such fun. We sang along, and Finn audiences tend to sing rather well with professional harmonies (although perhaps thanks to the bar being open, some were harsher on this one), but the exceptional sound system ensured that Neil’s voice always soared around us. The band danced about madly, with Jesse adding a well-timed jump after Neil sang “better to jump”. The music build-up to the part when they’re like battle weary soldiers in the video (and note keyboardist Eddie Rayner’s hula-hooping skills) still excites me like the teenager who used to glory when the video came on early MTV. I was a teen now hearing these classics with the sense, knowledge and experience to enjoy it on a new level, and Neil performed it with the same additional sense, knowledge, and experience, and a young yet enhanced voice. We rejoiced in the unadulterated fun.
We hollered happily, and Neil thanked us people of London, before deciding that probably only about 4% of us were from London (certainly there were a fair few Kiwi accents in the shout-outs). He said it was a truly international, cosmopolitan audience of all ages tonight, with generation upon generation there, and gestured towards his mother-in-law on the laptop but was disappointed to find she had gone. “Perhaps the battery ran out.” What a way to lose one’s mother-in-law. He referred again to his romantic idea of having 10 different people from across the planet on Skype, which he hopes to organise at some point. I hope he Skypes me when he’s on tour in Europe as I’d love to see this all again. But then I’m probably not what he had in mind.
The audience continued to pester Neil with its odd demands to pinpoint the precise location of people he knew, including Johnny Marr, who had joined him on stage in London in the past and in Manchester the previous week. “Well, Johnny’s back in Manchester, I believe” he said, no doubt “pacing around, drinking white tea and playing music”. So that’s the sum of our Smiths idol. But we didn’t Skype Johnny to see if he was indeed doing as Neil said, although that question lent something to the concert later.
“All right, let’s do this one,” he said determinedly, and Alistair hit his sticks together as Neil’s guitar led us into the overwhelmingly sublime Fall at Your Feet. We were now officially in a party atmosphere, and even with the audience shouting out the chorus at the top of their now less admirable lungs, the acoustics ensured Neil’s stunning voice prevailed. The talented singers he’d brought with him covered the high Tim part gloriously, and the lighting director lit up the extra thousands of singers joining in now. It was an impressive sight, looking up high and to the side boxes to see everyone standing and waving their arms if not singing. At the end, there was a split second pause before the band began some gentle, pretty music, with Holly and Lisa adding lovely wailing that turned into a slower extended play of Fall at Your Feet, leading us to join Neil again (rather badly initially), and even Holly and Jesse applauded when we all finished.
Neil thanked us for our good singing as he moved to the piano, and a boom box rhythm lined the hall supplemented by the audience clapping nearly to the beat, which Neil commended as he bent over the keys to pick out an initially unfamiliar tune, which turned into a haunting Wherever You Are, his voice still perfect. (How can he sing so unrelentingly for so long every night on these tours for decades and still sound so marvellous? Seriously, it seems to defy physics.) Jesse moved behind Sharon and played bass instead of her (is it a trickier on this song?), while she added vocals to some parts that turned a bit funkier. Neil’s piano skills were impressive, and I gather that Tim was also a skilled pianist from his early days so I guess it’s not just something they picked up whilst touring. At one point near the end, Jesse and Holly seemed to be chatting in between their backing vocals, but then that happens in the workplace, even with no water cooler.
It was now the time I’d expected to run for my train and Neil gave no indication of stopping, and we gave no indication of wanting him to. After our cheers calmed slightly, he told his band he was going to do some stuff on his own. It sounded like he said it was “strictly Dad stuff” but I guess he said “this is not strictly band stuff”. So he sent them off but asked them not to go far as he would be needing them back, sweetly adding, “Is that all right?” What a nice boss. Over the boisterous chorus of song requests, he said that he was getting to play a few songs that he didn’t normally get to play often. Isn’t he the one in charge?. He added that he felt like playing another that he’d written with his brother and that he was trying to cover all these Finn brothers albums but there were lots of them now. Thank goodness.
He began playing the mind-blowingly stunning Edible Flowers. I’d heard that he’d played it on this tour and didn’t think I wanted to hear it without Tim; it is magic when Tim sings the verses and Neil belts out the refrain. Naturally, this was lovely. Strangely, though, it had a weird effect on Neil’s appearance. He dropped his chin to his chest as he sang the verses, his eyes clamped shut with his eyebrows prominent so that in profile he looked mournful and—I dearly tried to resist observing this, but--as though he were a Noel Gallagher Muppet. (Please forgive me). That’s really a nod to Neil’s talents of transformation when he’s feeling the power of a song, as his moving performance seemed to age him with the burden of morosely singing about the inevitable passing years and prayers for a future, singing “Everybody wants the same thing, to see another birthday” and “look at all the pretty numbers scattered on the calendars.” Or perhaps he was imitating how he thought Tim looked when singing that song. Anyway, despite my unfortunate vision of Jim Henson meets Oasis, it was a dramatic delivery, with Neil’s voice dropping to new depths—of the octave kind, not in quality. He lifted his head when he sang his usual more energetic part, bathed in red lights. It was so touchingly atmospheric, it had 2,500 people standing still, silently in awe as one great man made inconceivably enchanting sounds with this voice and piano. This bewitching song is one of the most ravishing out there (and I can genuinely say that several of the most stunning songs in the world were created by Tim and Neil Finn).
As soon as he played the last note, we roared and clapped heartily. He cocked his jaw as though he knew he nailed it and smiled, then realised we’d all been standing as he played a slow song. “I wish I could play some dance music for you,” he said, then thoughtfully added “I think I will!” He burst into the upbeat piano part in the last minute of the definitely not upbeat Hole in the River that he wrote with Eddie Rayner after hearing of his own aunt’s awful suicide. That part sounded jolly and passed for dance music in the circumstances, and the audience clapped along cheerfully, adding a few whoops. Then Neil felt moved to sing the first line and refrain from Tim’s I See Red again, then turned back to beautiful ballads.
“My life is a house” he suddenly sang a cappella, then added piano and delivered a heart-meltingly elegant Nails in My Feet, , the second single from Together Alone. (Remember singles? I bought so many of these late Crowded House ones as they kept packaging them with different rarities as “B-sides” albeit on CDs, but I didn’t mind because I wanted to support their success and to have every track I could get my hands on.) He played what sounded like some minor keys, making me think of Tim’s song In a Minor Key then Neil’s comment on Jools Holland’s show recently about finally appreciating Stevie Wonder despite his playing so many—was it minor sevenths? Clearly I got lost in the beauty of the song and started thinking nonsense, and this performance made me treasure the song more than I have in all these years. His soaring voice on the super refrain “And it brings me relief” seemed to cascade out into London, and I haven’t stopped humming it since.
As we whooped with joy and I gave up on my train, he began gently playing something exquisite on the piano and called to the darkness on the far side of the stage, “If any of you guys are lurking for this next one, a few extra vocals might help out, on Faster than Light.” No one appeared and he added, “I told you to keep your ears open…?” He began singing the first verse of this song that is more engaging than I remembered, yet another reminder that we all underrated Try Whistling This when it first came out and must give it a fresh listen. That’s why I like to think I’ll have patience if I one day hear a horrid Neil Finn album; he must be creating seminal stuff. Even Split Enz’s Time and Tide worried me initially as it wasn’t as tuneful as its predecessors, but I quickly realised it was ingenious, and we all say how Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men wasn’t welcomed, but everyone is baffled by their lower opinions of it now (It had Into Temptation, I Feel Possessed, and When You Come, for goodness sake, as well as the concert favourite Better Be Home Soon). This first Neil solo album didn’t get the uproarious support that maybe it seems now to deserve. We just take a decade or so to catch up with his brilliance. Maybe in ten years I’ll have an epiphany about Pony Ride, which I’m vaguely enjoying already, but probably not the album arrangement of White Lies and Alibis.
Anyway, this is a pure love song lullaby, and I’ve always been fond of the lines “It's waking up the sparrows; in England it's morning. In time you'll see that some things travel faster than light. In time you'll recognise that love is larger than life.” Tonight, with Jesse and Lisa appearing to join Neil fairly quickly on lovely backing vocals, and Jesse on acoustic guitar alongside Neil’s striking piano, it was a holy experience. At the end, we cheered with renewed strength, but stopped quickly lest we waste precious time, though people renewed their relentless demands for their favourite songs. A humorous Kiwi called out for I See Red, so Neil once again resorted to it, but this time just played a split-second folky version to make us laugh. As the full band returned to the stage, some English guys near me saw Neil check the time and shouted almost menacingly “Keep on going!” People groaned at the thought of him leaving us because the venue’s curfew was looming, and someone shouted out not to worry as we’d pay the fine. “You say that now,” Neil said, “but when we send the bill around, you won’t be replying….”
He picked up and strummed an electric guitar to a tune that sounded like it might become Something So Strong, saying with renewed energy to the baying crowds “Let’s get on with it!” then barely took a breath before singing, “This could be a chance to see, to see with my own eyes, a carousel or a diving bell, designs bizarre be in the sky”, which was Strangest Friends from the new album. Their whole reason for being here now was this album, after all. Despite its wailing bluesy electric guitar (I’m just not big on wailing electric guitar), I was surprised by how familiar this tune was to me already and how much I enjoyed it. Jesse, Lisa and Holly sang a high sort of “la-la” part that reminded me of Max Edie’s backing vocals on The Waterboys’ The Whole of the Moon.
At the end of that lively number, Neil spoke over our applause of the previous mention of Johnny Marr, and said they’d learned this one and just felt like playing it. He strummed out on his acoustic guitar the first notes of the divine Smiths gem There is A Light That Never Goes Out to our thrilled cheers, but stopped suddenly and the audience sounded injured. He explained that he’d had the wrong capo setting, moved it and the band started again, on a high-speed setting perhaps to fit it in before curfew. Holly seemed to be chopping madly at her charming cello, we all helped out on vocals for better or for worse, though happily Neil drowned us out, and it was like partying in a fairground as we oddly sang euphorically in unison, “And if a double-decker bus, crashes into us, To die by your side….”. Even Andrew was standing now, revealing that there was more to him than a leg beneath the piano. He wore an amusingly calm but beguiled “what are you guys like” expression throughout as he glanced at the rest of the band from underneath his Finn-like floppy fringe. He and his seemingly unflappable manner reminded me a bit of the great London stage actor Stephen Ashfield, who played Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys, the love interest in Legally Blonde, and won an Olivier Award for his part in the Book of Mormon.
Weirdly, despite the “beer run” front aisle at the foot of the stage being packed and the evening minutes from ending, a row of big bouncers dressed in black suddenly started threading their way single file through that crowd as if to form a barrier. The boss bouncers were pointing towards people as though they were secret service men (no doubt in their dreams) spotting assassins they had to stop quickly. Everyone was singing happily with their eyes on the stage, but yes, loads of phones were out snapping quick shots; it’s the nature of gigs now. One person was filming this song, perhaps just a snippet to put on YouTube for those who couldn’t be here and for posterity. I certainly don’t condone that (given my St James’s Church experience, in particular) and I know it’s not his property and it is objectionable in many ways, but we were all standing and it was a bit of a party then, and I doubt he was making a full bootleg DVD of the whole concert to make millions in ill-gotten gains. Eventually, the scariest of the big meanies sidled up beside this person who carried on obliviously, and Bouncer Guy watched him for a while, almost as if to ensure he had the evidence to present at court, then he reached out and grabbed the punter’s shoulder. I expected him to drag the guy out and seize his camera, and based on his expression and committed posse, you’d think the big meanie was going to punch his lights out for good measure, but of course he wouldn't; he probably only told the guy to stop. To be honest, my attention turned back to the magic on stage. But why all that distracting drama and why bother minutes before curfew? To this day, I kick myself for not quickly snapping that photo of Ray Davies in his union jack suit there. It would have been a blurry without the flash but I’d still be smiling at it today, whereas my awful memory can’t picture the amazing sight now, just my sorrow at failing to capture it.
Anyway, as the behaved audience cheered at the end of the Smiths song, Neil strummed randomly on his guitar, saying “six minutes apparently”, then cut to the chorus of Weather With You, repeatedly shouting out “Everywhere you go” and we finished the lines, clapping to the beat, but that song went no further. It seemed enough given the time pressures, but I guess he can’t escape performing that song to some degree. Jesse stood with his hands behind his back and joined in on vocals in what became a brief piecemeal medley, with Neil now switching to the chorus of Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain, albeit with no reggae flavour so perhaps he was covering Annie Lennox’s cover. The band floored us with gorgeous harmonies on a clearly rehearsed chorus, then paused to hear Neil strum out the beginning of Better Be Home Soon, which is tantamount to singing Goodnight, Sweetheart as it sadly always means goodbye.
I remember Neil demonstrating at a past gig how suspiciously similar it sounds to the decade younger release by the Verve of The Drugs Don’t Work, but I guess he’s not litigious (like the Rolling Stones, um, to nearly quote a Bob Dylan song). The audience really belted out the chorus, with a few singing the verses just as loudly, but we could always easily hear Neil. When he sang the verse about it causing him pain if we were to end it, everyone shut up to let the master deliver the emotion. If we stopped to think it was all about to end…it would cause us pain. Neil Finn’s not a neighbour who turns up on our doorstep every day, after all, and tonight brought a sublime show and band of tremendous quality.
At the end, we absolutely roared. He thanked us, the band stood shoulder to shoulder and took a bow in unison, then went off. It was 10.55pm. If he’d finished five minutes sooner, I could have run for my train and got home just after midnight without any safety worries, but I found I didn’t care; I wouldn’t have wanted that. It was a spectacular evening, two and a half hours of enraptured electricity. I turned to my similarly elated friends beside me in Row B, two of whom had defied illness to come, and we said how that was crap and the seats were crap and we just don’t know why we keep bothering with this man. Well, it gets old just drooling over him all the time. Or it might one day. Guess I’ll have to keep coming to his concerts to make sure, and long may we have the golden opportunity.
As I left, I passed the merchandise stand and must praise what was on offer—not just Tiny Ruins’ latest which I’ll get when I’m paid (I love her 2011 album), but even Neil Finn tour tea towels (useful!) and tote bags. If only it weren’t such an impossible month financially and if only I wore t-shirts, I would have bought the striking blue and green (my favourite colours) Dizzy Heights tour t-shirt as an ideal memento but sadly didn’t have £20 spare or the credit cards I had pre-redundancy. But I still wish I’d got a giant t-shirt that I’d plan to use as a nightshirt but would probably keep preserved and untouched like many t-shirts from the past. Sigh. At least I have brilliant memories and blurry photos. But do take funds if you’re going along to one of these shows in case you’re tempted.
So in summary, the setlist was as follows:-
2. Distant Sun
3. Dizzy Heights
4. One Step Ahead
5. Pony Ride
6. In My Blood
7. Golden Child
8. Only Talking Sense
9. Suffer Never
11. Into the Sunset
12. White Lies and Alibis
15. Message to My Girl
16. I See Red (snippet 1 of 3)
17. Don’t Dream It’s Over
18. Flying in the Face of Love
19. She Will Have Her Way
Encore (a long one!)
20. Locked Out
21. History Never Repeats
22. Fall at Your Feet
23. Wherever You Are
24. Edible Flowers
25. Hole in the River (snippet)
26. I See Red (snippet 2)
27. Nails in My Feet
28. Faster Than Light
29. I See Red (snippet 3)
30. Strangest Friends
31. There is a Light That Never Goes Out
32. Weather With You / Waiting in Vain
33. Better Be Home Soon.
If you want to see Neil’s later webcast promoting the album in January 2014 with his two sons and much of the band we saw tonight, it is thankfully online: I like that he had to put on reading glasses during the webcast, as the daunting day when I need to put my new first pair of reading glasses on in public or at work is no doubt approaching, yet we’re both too young. Another blissfully pure acoustic version of Neil playing White Lies and Alibis after introducing it is here although nothing beats the piano and strings. I’ll go away now.
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