Just divine. Heros, by and large, are just you and me with better luck or makeup. …Okay, or talent. I’m not being cynical here, it’s part of growing up to grasp this terrifying reality – everyone’s just someone like you, making it up as they go along, right? Which makes heros all the more important, ironically. (Apologies for spelling out any irony there, it’s just that I hate to think of people missing it and thinking I’ve just lost my way from one end of the sentence to the other. Which, given the much-comma-ed length of many of my sentences would hardly be surprising. …Where was I?)
Heros. One of mine is Neil Hannon. Not because I’ve stalked him anything like as much as I should have done to imagine I know much about him, but simply because of who I hear in the songs. The blissful, romantic, slice-your-arm-off-witty wonderful, many-level-lyrical songs of The Divine Comedy. And at last, on Tuesday night, I finally got to see him live.
Say ‘The Portsmouth Pyramid Centre’ to anyone who lives nearby and they’ll snort. Mainly out of derision, but quite possibly to simply clear their synuses – for the Portsmouth Pyramid Centre isn’t simply a down-at-heel spare room for live music, it’s also a public swimming baths. Neat, huh? An afternoon AND evening out. With showers to go home post-gig clean.
Wandering in, still unsure we’d found the right venue, Caroline and I looked around at the modest hall and hand-made stage at the far end of the carpet and beamed. Really, what could be a better place to see one of your heros perform? We’d almost be on stage with him. The gents were opposite the dressing rooms and for one gloriously delerious moment, as I pushed on the smeery door, I imagined I’d be standing next to Neil before he’d had a chance to dab and do up, asking him enthusiastically if getting the word ‘peripetetically’ to scan and rhyme successfully into My Imaginary Friend really was responding to a bet by a friend as we’ve always imagined it must be. Sadly, I relieved myself without the company of stardom. Possibly this was a better outcome.
Neil’s music doesn’t fit the usual categories that turn me on. It’s not beat-driven or production-driven. It’s about songwriting. But the key thing to remember is.. well, the three key things to remember are:
1: The songs are shot through with that rare commodity in popular music, wit, whilst also being hopelessly romantic.
2: The melodies are flow-perfect. Gorgeous. Lush. The string arrangements, stop me if I get dull, are just what I would do. Given the talent and the budget.
3: Neil is a baritone, which means I can sing his songs much more easily in the bath.
So, nerd of nerds that I am, I couldn’t help myself cheering like a teenage girl when TDC’s main man sauntered onto the stage with a wry grin and flung his arms open in perfect time to a huge cymbal crash fanfare in his huge, camp, orchestral Sauntering Onto Stage music. I then proceeded to bellow every last syllable of his songs into Caroline’s ear for an hour and a half, adding some nice harmonies and generally enhancing the whole marvellously entertaining experience for her.
He had a sickeningly talented, well-orchestrated team around him; all of them multi-instrumental and making an amazingly effective live arrangement of his album tracks. A violinist, a cellist, a percussionist, lead guitarist, two key board set-ups, plus drummer and bassist – and it sounded just great. He banged them out and we cheered louder every time. And he finished with National Express and the crowd went home grin-ache happy.
Talent. Right there. Everyone in the little audience there was undoubtedly some sort of fan, so that he only had to look at us for long enough and we were poised to laugh. I’d hoped for a sort of Dylan Moran with a guitar and a string section and that’s pretty much what we got. And what more do you need?
We first picked up a copy of A Secret History six or seven years ago and embedded it into our memory of driving round Tuscany than summer. Ever since, it’s been hard to get the Divine Comedy’s words and melodies out of the happy place in our brains. We whooped, we sang along, we imagined ourselves buying him a Guiness one day and being a showbizz chum. Well, only I did the last bit of course. But hurrah for a whole evening of sumptuous Between The Wars Cabaret. I think that’s how he describes it.
A little bit of inspiration makes all the difference to a dreary Tuesday evening. They might be making it up as they go along, just like you and me, but it’s WHAT they make up as they go along that makes heros heros.
The Divine Comedy’s songs don’t just put a smile on the face, they work rather like a comedy in the original sense of the word – they make you think everything will one day work out okay.
Cheers for the heavenly noise, Neil. You’re a bally hero.