I last saw Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy under the banner of “An Evening with Neil Hannon” (rather than the full band line-up on show tonight) back in 2010 at Sheffield’s Leadmill. He gave a tour de force performance almost entirely alone, taking up instruments as and when required and giving an incredibly high pound to joy ratio in a packed set list of hits and new material. Tonight at the Foundry in Sheffield, he has the same innate sense of fun, entertaining the crowd with every cocked eyebrow, whimsical costume change and accidental slip but now he has fellow musicians to bounce off and the band are having just as much fun as the audience.
Having an equally good time entertaining the audience is support act Lisa O’Neill. A singer-songwriter hailing from County Cavan, Ireland, she regales us with half a dozen songs which cover everything from dreams about Elvis and feeding him Irish stew, to contemplating the existence of a sheep and she takes her time introducing each song, ensuring she gives it proper context in a contemplative manner.
O’Neill’s quirky raconteur-style is wonderful and I admit to never being 100% sure if she is dead-panning us with a dry, wry sense of the weird and witty or being genuinely, brilliantly bonkers. A story about skydiving is particularly entertaining ahead of the standout track “Pothole in the Sky”. She is accompanied by mournful violin (courtesy of the talented Chris Capewell) on half her tracks, but for the rest, carries things with just her guitar and her plaintive, almost ethereal vocals. A few technical hitches don’t put her off and even an audio shock of a bang comes just at the right place, after a lyric about the devil, so that she can appreciate the irony and weave it into the fabric of her storytelling.
• England Has My Man
• Elvis, I Give You Irish Stew
• Pothole in the Sky
• Black Sheep
Across 24 songs and nearly 2 hours, Neil Hannon and the band are stunningly entertaining, the pace of hits and sense of joy barely letting up, even across lesser known tracks and the new material, which sits perfectly alongside the gold plated classics of the 1990s. Looking dapper and composed in a slim fit black suit, Hannon gets the crowd going from the off with his genuinely engaging personality, sizzlingly intelligent lyrics and instantly memorable melodies.
After a few songs, he dons a bowler hat, grabs an umbrella and goes into the “complete banker” persona from their “Bang Goes the Knighthood” era. He laments that it’s a shame he still has to play some of these post-credit crunch songs as they’re still as relevant as ever in today’s continuing climate of austerity. The props are dropped and two more diverse songs couldn’t be played back to back than the jaunty-yet-despairing “Generation Sex” and the sweeping kitchen sink opera of “Our Mutual Friend”. Both sum up the band’s ability to be thoroughly quirky, British (despite Hannon’s Irish ancestry) and engaging.
Hannon finds plenty of time to play the fool, whether it’s tricking the knowing crowd by announcing “Alfie” and then playing the Cilla Black classic rather than their own hit (which comes much later in the set), ad-libbing or bumbling through his own lyrics with gay abandon and even cocking up their own set list by being spontaneous and bringing support act Lisa O’Neill back on for the witty ditty “Funny Peculiar”. The latter also provides a hilarious faux pas as he suggests this version with Lisa rather than album contributor (and Hannon’s partner) Cathy Davey will be “different” (queue theatrical gasps from the audience) which he then reassesses as “better?” to even louder “ooohs” from the keen-to-play-along crowd. There’s even a charmingly crazy interlude where Hannon declares it’s time for drinks and proceeds to pour and serve drinks from a globe drinks dispenser to his band mates whilst they play a jaunty instrumental.
As other bands might be winding down or winding up, Hannon takes the glorious orchestral extended outro of “The Certainty of Chance” to duck off-stage and return dressed in his finest Napoleonic regalia as seen on the artwork and in videos for latest album “Foreverland”. And so follows what I shall refer to as the Francophone section. At other venues, this has included album opener “Napoleon Complex” and Noel Coward-esque “I Joined the Foreign Legion (To Forget)” but tonight we get the barmy “Sweden”, cracking current single “How Can You Leave Me On My Own”, the dream-like “Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont” (which Hannon reveals is his favourite song and acts out using the previously mentioned onstage prop of a globe drinks dispenser) and “The Frog Princess”. Here he strays rather from the recorded version with some funny ad libs about Bonaparte and Josephine and almost makes it back in time for the end of the song.
The heat of the venue is all too much and so he removes his historic outfit including leather boots, to return to his lucky pumps. Incredibly, there are still 9 songs left before the obligatory stage exit before encore.
More absolute classics follow including “At the Indie Disco”, “Something For the Weekend”, “Alfie,” “National Express” and “I Like” alongside brand new classics-in-the-making like the sublime “To the Rescue” and comeback track “Catherine the Great”.
Across the entire evening, Hannon flits between guitars and even finds time to accompany himself on the melodica, having a good stab at the Marseillaise whilst the band are flawless and bring the complex intricacies of the recordings to vivid life.
An encore is made up of “Father Ted” theme harpsichord waltz “Songs of Love” and the near-impossible euphoric list of “Tonight We Fly”. Hannon looks weary but it’s understandable after such an engaging, exhilarating and thoroughly loveable performance. If you were ever thinking of falling out of love with Hannon and the Divine Comedy, just check them out live and you’ll realise how ridiculous an idea that was.
Check out Neil and chums on their website, Twitter and Facebook.
• Down in the Street Below
• Assume the Perpendicular
• Bad Ambassador
• Bang Goes the Knighthood
• The Complete Banker
• Generation Sex
• Our Mutual Friend
• Alfie (Cilla Black cover)
• The Certainty of Chance
• How Can You Leave Me on My Own
• Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont
• The Frog Princess
• To the Rescue
• A Lady of a Certain Age
• Funny Peculiar
• Catherine the Great
• At the Indie Disco
• Something for the Weekend
• Becoming More Like Alfie
• I Like
• National Express
• Songs of Love
• Tonight We Fly