How do you explain the ineffable genius that is The Divine Comedy? The band’s songwriter and frontman Neil Hannon is a man of seemingly infinite talent and effortless charm. His emotionally engaging songs range from the divine to the comedic. A genuine national treasure and a gentleman to boot, he is a performer unlike any other – as his performance at the UEA’s LCR in Norwich last night clearly demonstrated.
The gig began with a somewhat subdued opening – similar to last year’s more sophisticated all-seated gig at Norwich’s Open – as, sharp suited yet scraggly-bearded, Hannon quietly performs “Down In The Street Below” under a single spotlight, like some sort of an sublime overture, or a starter before a meal. But then straight after, the main feast begins with a rather unexpectedly early succession of the band’s biggest hits from across the decades: 1996’s “Something For The Weekend” and “Becoming More Like Alfie”, 2006’s “To Die A Virgin” and 2016’s “Catherine The Great”.
But big hits are only half the story for The Divine Comedy. Hannon’s appeal comes from his ease to show his genuinely sweet nature (in tracks such as “Songs of Love”, “Everybody Knows” and “To the Rescue”, all performed tonight), while at the same time also possessing a fierce intelligence, and an understanding of the human condition that is unparalleled by his contemporaries. His more cerebral content is shown during a run of touching emotional tracks, again selected from all across his oeuvre: 1993’s “The Summerhouse”, 2006’s “A Lady of a Certain Age”, 2010’s “Neapolitan Girl” and 2004’s “Our Mutual Friend”. Physically performing the lyrical content during latter (“We sank down to the floor and we sang / A song that I can’t sing any more / And then we kissed and fell unconscious”), Neil remains floor-bound until the next verse. Because of course he does.
Such a unique – and relaxed – approach to performing is somewhat expected at a Divine Comedy gig; in between songs, Neil chats with the audience about the songs, he tells jokes, and pours wine for himself and hands around beer for his band-members. It’s these unique touches – in addition to the absolute knockout songs – that make Divine Comedy gigs so special.
The fun theatricals don’t end with Neil lying down on the job either, as after an extended Hannon-less instrumental section, he returns to the stage in full military regalia for the final phase of the gig, beginning appropriately with “Napoleon Complex”, the opening salvo from the band’s most recent album.
From then on to the end of the night, it’s all non-stop wonky party anthems – “How Can You Leave Me On My Own?”, “Generation Sex”, “I Like”, “At The Indie Disco” (which momentarily seamlessly segues into and out of New Order’s “Blue Monday”, with Neil instructing “if we do this, you have got to dance”), and finally, the evergreen “National Express”.