The promising review of Neil Finn’s new solo album Dizzy Heights in today’s Guardian means I’ll be dipping my hand in my pocket next week to get a copy but the truth is I’d still be dipping my hand in my pocket even if it was a dodgy review as I’ve long admired Finn’s songs, from Split Enz through Crowded House to his albums both solo and with brother Tim.
One of the things that sets Crowded House apart from most is their quirky sense of humour. At one show I saw Neil got into a heated debate with bassist Nick Seymour about the artwork on their most recent album which, as ever, Nick had designed. Neil suggested that he and drummer Paul Hester looked like nerds but Nick looked cool and handsome. “Was this deliberate?” he asked. Another time he got into an argument with a roadie because his guitar was out of tune. “It’s your own fault,” replied the roadie within range of a mike. “You hit the strings too hard.”
Tony Fletcher once told me that at a CH show he attended Neil played the same song twice in succession just because he enjoyed it so much, as did the audience. I last saw Crowded House at the Brighton Centre on December 7, 2007, and sent the following review to Tony’s ijamming website a day or two later. It opens with another example of Neil’s dry wit.
“I really fancy a plate of fish and chips,” Neil Finn announced midway through this gig. “If there’s anyone out there who’s not a Crowded House fan, maybe someone’s partner who’s come along a bit reluctantly and isn’t enjoying the show, maybe they wouldn’t mind nipping out and buying some for us. It should be pretty good here at the seaside.”
Crowded House may have lost their drummer but they haven’t lost their sense of humour and there were no takers for Neil’s unusual request. Not surprising really, for this was a cracker of a gig, a long (25+ songs, I lost count), supremely executed show crammed with all the stuff from CH’s fabulous back catalogue that you would expect to hear, a few surprises and plenty of songs from their new album Time On Earth.
They opened up with ‘Private Universe’ and closed almost two hours and two four-song encores later with ‘Better Be Home Soon’, by which time everyone downstairs had left their seats and congregated stage-front. The rush forward occurred during ‘Whispers And Moans’ about half way through the set, and prompted Finn to lead his band into some rock’n’roll, ‘There Goes God’, I think, and thereafter feed off the crowd’s enthusiasm.
In concert CH is a considerably more beefy proposition than on record. Many of the songs, both the better known ones and newer material, featured extended, high energy codas, and new drummer Matt Sherrod adds plenty of muscle at the back. I also got the impression that the band has rehearsed much more material than they actually need, and were thus willing to accede to audience requests for songs from the darker recesses of their catalogue, like ‘Lester’. Just for fun they also threw in ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, John Lennon’s song from Revolver, though Neil stumbled on the words to the second verse.
Which brings me to the inevitable Beatles comparison. Yes, CH do sound a bit like a modern day Beatles; their melodies and harmonies a bit similar to the snatches of half-formed songs that make up the suite on what was the B-side of Abbey Road, they use the same Vox amplifiers, which makes Neil’s Gretsch guitar sounds a lot like George’s when he plays fills and solos, and when all four of them sing together there was a distinct Fabness about the overall sound (which, by the way was pristine clear and uniformly well mixed throughout). But this is no bad thing, and I’m sure Neil won’t mind the comparison one bit. Indeed, my mate Andy Neill, also a Kiwi, recalls swapping Beatles bootlegs with the Finn brothers 30 years ago.
There are so many wonderful Crowded House songs that it was difficult to keep up with the flow – ‘Fall At Your Feet’, ‘When You Come’, ‘Fingers Of Love’ (very erotic those two, as is ‘Whispers And Moans’… think about it!), ‘Distant Sun’, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, ‘Pineapple Head’, ‘Weather With You’, It’s Only Natural’, ‘Four Seasons...’, ‘Chocolate Cake’, ‘World Where You Live’, the list is endless – but they played them all and played them well. American all-rounder Mark Hart seems to be the band’s secret weapon, slipping between keyboards, pedal steel and regular guitars, and even bassist Nick Seymour took a turn at the electric piano, though for most of the gig he was walking purposefully from one side of the stage to the other as he played. He was also the butt of Neil’s humour during the frequent exchanges of self-depreciative remarks, not least when he swigged from a large bottle of coke and prompted Neil to comment on his weight.
Seymour, of course, designs CH’s artwork, and the constantly changing backdrop featured a slew of wonderful surreal imagery, all brightly-coloured and floating by in perfect syc with the music. At one point the letters that make up the band’s name – hundreds of them jumbled up like alphabet spaghetti and repeated endlessly – swam across the backdrop. It was all quite lovely, even the gaudy caravan that moved across the backstage during ‘Weather With You’ and the strange inflatable skyscrapers that popped up from time to time.
There was much audience participation, encouraged by Neil, and CH fans seem to be pretty tuneful singers on the whole. I refrained from joining in, not wishing to spoil things, but I did yell for ‘Into Temptation’, another song with a hint of erotica about it and Mrs C’s favourite CH song, but they either didn’t hear me or ran out of time (though they have done it on this tour). And that, I think, was the only tiny disappointment from an otherwise five-star gig.