With a voice like Jim Morrison or Frank Sinatra, but having a knack for writing incredibly catchy or touching or funny songs that are impossible not to enjoy, there is no-one quite like Neil Hannon, the genius behind THE DIVINE COMEDY. The band’s current Foreverland tour – named after their current album – reached Norwich Open on Saturday, and more than anything else, it was a celebration of Neil’s imagination, charm, wit, humour and sublime musical talent.
The show started gently, with Neil and co performing the simply beautiful “Down In The Street Below” for the 500 seated fans before him. This soft approach continued with further assorted album tracks from ten years ago, including “Assume the Perpendicular”, “Bang Goes the Knighthood” and “The Complete Banker”.
Performing only two (very minor) singles – “Bad Ambassador” and “Generation Sex” – for the first hour, the band were quite clearly playing by their own rules with regards to track choice, denying expectations, enjoying themselves, and spreading the sheer joy and inventiveness of the songs to everyone in attendance.
A sublime performance of “Our Mutual Friend” saw Neil continue to sing as he jumped off the stage, wandered among the audience, and sat between two fans (practically on their laps), then – as per the song’s lyrics – he collapsed on the floor, laying there for what felt uncomfortably and hilariously far too long. After finally getting back on the stage, Neil then announced the next track to be “Alfie”, which you would assume would be the band’s 1996 smash hit “Becoming More Like Alfie” – but no: instead, Neil and the band instead beautifully rendered the 1966 Cilla Black theme from the film of the same for no readily apparent reason. Later, after a stirring performance of another minor single “The Certainty Of Chance”, Neil changed into a Napoleon costume for what you would expect would mean they were about to perform “Napoleon Complex”, the opening track from the band’s current album. But, once again defying predictable behaviour, the band instead chose to perform obtuse, peculiar and completely unrelated album track “Sweden” from 1998’s Fin De Siecle, before launching into catchy and clearly ELO-inspired current single “How Can You Leave Me On My Own”.
Completely random, the whole show was unlike anything I have ever seen before. During a further costume change – which saw Neil return to more contemporary clothes – the band proceeded to mix and distribute cocktails amongst themselves, which later lead – to a frankly unwise-but-hilarious lyrics-based drinking game with a large glass of Bloody Mary with his duet partner during “Funny Peculiar”.
And then, straight after that, Neil picked up an impressively gorgeous red guitar, and encouraged the crowd off their feet. Suddenly the gig transformed, with back-to-back performances of popular singles “At the Indie Disco”, “Something for the Weekend”, “Becoming More Like Alfie” (finally!), “I Like” and “National Express”, seeing the audience up and dancing the night away, ending the show on a definite high.
So, when Neil returned for a much-deserved and desired encore, he looked somewhat confused with what to do next, joking “I really should have written more hits”. If anything, his comment emphasised the sheer unfairness of the music industry. Twenty years, and eleven albums later, and Neil and his band are still not household names. Instead they are the very definition of cult; anything but mainstream, they are utterly adored by their fans. After two decades of creating their own secret history of incredible song writing, I think it’s about time everyone went to see The Divine Comedy. Go spread the word: The man is a genius.