The Divine Comedy returns to the stage – or rather Neil Hannon, this time with assorted musicians billed as The Millennia Ensemble. It’s a one-nighter, part of a short UK tour, and it’s packed. It’s also being filmed for what we are told is to be The Divine Comedy’s first ever DVD.
We know from the cover of recent album Absent Friends Neil Hannon has returned to dapper suits so the Palladium, in all its Edwardian grandeur, is not quite the weird setting it might be for a gig. It is disconcerting, though, to find the audience snapping up T-shirts for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – the current resident show – but it underlines the broad appeal The Divine Comedy has for a very diverse audience, not least in age range.
The stage is set for what seems to be dozens of musicians. Grand piano, keyboards, various guitars, seats for strings, brass, drums and a separate percussion installation with everything but the kitchen sink. Including a gong. This bodes well – are we going to get Sweden?
A diminutive figure comes on stage, followed by a host of musicians. From my vertiginous perch in the Upper Circle it looks just like Neil Hannon – same stature, same suit, same haircut. But no, the real one comes on a few minutes later, to rapturous applause – no one closer to the stage was fooled, then. The guy at the piano is introduced as Andy, the musical director. Musical director? I thought this was a gig… but it’s true, there are a lot of people to keep under control. One of them, to my delight, being Rob Farrer – no worries about the percussion, then. He can wield a mean gong. The odds on Sweden rise.
We kick off with Absent Friends, though. Far from my favourite on the new album, but it helps to acknowledge up front that this is a new line-up, and Joby, Ivor, Bryan, Pinky and Miggy will be missed. Then we slip back in time to In Pursuit Of Happiness, making full use of the mini-orchestra on stage, followed by Becoming More Like Alfie. However the sound isn’t right, the orchestra drowning out Hannon’s voice, and he himself looks ill at ease and not at all like Alfie in a baggy grey suit – more country gentleman than bounder.
Someone must have flicked a switch because Sticks And Stones, one of the standout tracks from Absent Friends, sounds terrific. The wonderful rich voice is there in force and the lyrics remind you why you fell for this Irishman in the first place: “You and I go together / like the molar and the drill…” Two more new songs follow – Leaving Today, which sounds even schmaltzier live than on the album, and the current single, Come Home Billy Bird.
“Do you want more songs?” said Hannon at the start, “because we’ve got shitloads…” He was right – and many of them are rarely heard live. Certainty Of Chance takes full advantage of the musicians for the lovely instrumental section, with Hannon sitting like a leprechaun watching. When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe is the first of a clutch of songs from that masterpiece of an album, Promenade – we also get Don’t Look Down (magic), Neptune’s Daughter (the obligatory forgetting-the-second-verse moment – “well, there were an awful lot of lyrics in Promenade”) and a triumphant version of The Booklovers. Not the album version, but an actor – Killian Murphy, with a rich Irish accent – reading from J P Donleavy’s The Ginger Man instead of the catalogue of titles. Hannon was delighted at the response, having introduced the song as “perhaps one pretension too far…” No, wonderful stuff.
Somewhere in all this there was an interval (at a gig?) and somewhere also was found space for National Express (well, it had to be), Generation Sex (we miss you, Ivor), Songs Of Love (rather over-orchestrated) and a delightful rarity from Liberation, Three Sisters.
More of the new, too: The Happy Goth (cheers), Charmed Life (more schmaltz) and one of the highlights of the evening, Our Mutual Friend. This Nyman-esque style is surely what Hannon does best, and easily ranks with the great songs of previous years. Its luscious and grandiose orchestration (thanks, Joby) was perfect for this line-up – a triumph.
The official end was, as it really had to be, Tonight We Fly. But there also had to be an encore, and it was back to the old favourites for Something For The Weekend, followed by Hannon’s most moving composition, Sunrise. His voice, at times during this two-hour marathon sounding strained, held up magnificently for the notes that he really shouldn’t be able to reach at all – and so we definitely ended on a high.
This may not have been The Divine Comedy as we knew and loved it, and I still hope that one day there will again be a core band to work together in less glitzy surroundings. But a gig like this is great once in a while, and the real pleasure was to see that the new songs fit happily in with the old. They’re different, but they show the same flashes of brilliance. Shame about Sweden though – maybe next time.