I last saw The Divine Comedy nine years ago in Bristol, during Neil Hannon’s short-lived, yet exquisite ‘moody Indie’ phase, which followed the release of the album Regeneration. I spent that evening in 2001 in a drunken haze, surrounded by fellow students, standing a few feet away from Hannon and his band as they rocked seven shades of Cinnamon out of the place.
It’s now 2010, and I sit, completely sober, in The O2 Academy, Bournemouth, on a collapsible chair, positioned on what was once the dancefloor of the nightclub The Opera House; a venue synonymous with Trance music and Ecstasy Pills. The strongest substance I consume tonight is a can of ‘Polish Red Bull’, purchased in a shop across the road from The Academy, which I expertly sneak past the doormen. The same doormen, I hasten to add, that confiscate a bottle of water from my heavily pregnant wife, which they toss remorselessly into a nearby bin. Determined to gain my revenge, I first obtain free water from the bar, then set about finding a way to drink my contraband whilst being keenly watched by an unnerving number of security guards. Having tried and failed with various methods of attack and with the opened can now spilling into my pocket and running down my trouserleg, I am forced into the last resort of the desperate Polish Red Bull drinker: the toilet cubicle. Returning to my seat with a wet leg, the ripe smell of taurine surrounding me like a seedy perfume, and an empty, crushed can in my jacket pocket, I feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. Grown men in their late twenties; grown men in their late twenties with a child on the way; grown men in their late twenties with a child on the way, surrounded by civilised people sipping glasses of wine and lager, do NOT down cans of energy drink- cheap Polish energy drink- in toilet cubicles. I sit down next to my wife, and avoid eye-contact, somehow aware that she knows what I’ve done. When she comments on the liquid dripping from my jacket pocket, and the stain on my jeans, my fears are realised, and I pray for the concert to start and save me from my torment.
To my eternal relief, the lights go down, and onto the stage creeps Cathy Davey. Without a word, she sits down, plugs in her guitar, and starts her set. An Irish singer-songwriter, Davey appears shy and says little between songs, but when she sings, everyone listens; such is the power of her voice and the passion of her playing. At one point, Davey thrashes her guitar with such vigour that a string perishes, leading to some awkward moments as she re-tunes, but this is the only lull in an otherwise impressive set. So affected am I, in fact, that after she finishes, I risk revealing my stained trousers in order to go and buy her album from the merchandise stall.
So on to the main event. Half an hour after Davey leaves the stage, Neil Hannon appears, dressed in black suit and bowler hat, with a leather briefcase and pipe completing the look. With a nod and brief ‘Hello’, he sits at the grand piano, and works his way through a series of Divine Comedy classics, old and new, expertly handling their new piano arrangements. Unlike Cathy Davey, Hannon is completely at ease in front of the crowd, and between tracks allows his dry sense of humour to charm the audience, demonstrating that a ‘pop star’ can still be witty, intelligent, and down to earth in a business largely dominated by dullards and egomaniacs.
High points come thick and fast, but standouts for me are Our Mutual Friend, and Tonight We Fly (the ultimate Divine Comedy set-closer), both given new life from their sparse arrangements, and Songs Of Love and A Lady Of A Certain Age, both played on acoustic guitar.
There is rarely a dull moment during the hour and a half Hannon is on stage, which is certainly an achievement for a one-man show, but the inclusion of a track from his upcoming Musical version of Swallows and Amazons proves the least interesting performance of the set, and presents me with a much-needed opportunity to filter some of the energy drink out into a urinal, thus, in all probability, returning product to source.
A short, two-song encore of Duckworth Lewis track Jiggery-Pokery and obligatory National Express brings a superb performance to a close, and Hannon, picking up his briefcase, putting on his bowler hat and bowing to the crowd, disappears off stage to a standing ovation.
Ruined trousers and jacket.