The Divine Comedy, The Duke Special

Tim Miller 31/10/2006

Halloween; and Portsmouth Pyramids, as a venue, is a strange one. The last time I was here, I rightly predicted big things for The Long Blondes and iForward, Russia!, suffered the insufferable antics of The Automatic, and questioned the choice of a lightweight BoyKillBoy as headliners for that gig. On that occasion, the ballroom style venue seemed ill-suited to the night, but this time, the intimacy of the room is far more palpable, filled as it is with adoring and rather 'proper' The Divine Comedy fans.

Before Neil Hannon and his musicians appear though, there is the unenviable role of support act to negotiate. How does one go about supporting such an act as The Divine Comedy? A glance at audience - whose average age must be at least in the late 30s, more likely well into the 40s - clearly indicates a bunch who would have no time for young, noisy upstarts like an NME New Music tour. In fact, this crowd would probably like to believe they have an acquired taste in music, and would demand a suitably appropriate act to start the evening.

So it is hats off to duo The Duke Special, who spend half an hour warming up the crowd nicely, the vocalist's rich and powerful Irish voice bouncing around the walls. With just the two of them, it is congratulations indeed for keeping the entertainment levels high, with all their songs being based on gorgeous, booming piano chords played by the singer, and a drum accompaniment. The passionate songs, some melancholic and others more jaunty, keep a highly judgemental audience spirited, aided no doubt by the easy access to the two bars in the room, and a generous round of applause sends off a grateful The Duke Special.

At a leisurely 9pm, the lights dim and seven people walk on to the stage to an excited reception, which upgrades to positively euphoric when the eighth figure of Neil Hannon saunters on stage. Between them this evening, they will play 2 keyboards, 2 guitars, a bass guitar, a cello, a violin, drums, assorted percussion, while all of them bar the drummer has a microphone. An exceptionally talented ensemble; but then, that is the least to be expected in order to reproduce live the exceptional songs from the genius mind of Neil Hannon.

Quite simply, there are few songwriters in the world today to match him. Under the guise of The Divine Comedy, Hannon creates miniature masterpieces that beautifully and seamlessly merge pop sensibilities with orchestral arrangements (assisted in no small part, I think, by the equally brilliant judgement of arranger Andrew Skeet). What is even more astounding is that Hannon matches, nearly all the time, the clever songwriting with witty, poetic and rhythmic lyric/stories. A cast of many, many people must make the recorded versions of these songs, but live, it is breathtaking to see how just eight people can combine to fill this venue with the sumptuous songs that are The Divine Comedy back catalogue.

Hannon is on fine form tonight, and in fine voice. Opening with the rosy-cheeked 'Mother Dear', he can do no wrong, donning an acoustic guitar for much of the performance, and beaming coyly out over his, his audience. For we are in the palm of his hand all night. From the richest of delights, like the renditions of 'Becoming More Like Alfie' and 'When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe', to the raucous set-closer 'National Express', the spectacle takes on an almost ethereal feel as wisps of smoke float around, and the noises emanating from each of the musicians add up to a marvellous tapestry of sound in an evermore intimate setting. At several points, the crowd and Hannon interact gamely, Neil enquiring after the Chelsea - Barcelona score, to be met with a cry of “Who cares?” by a woman (typical) behind me.

The bits in between the gorgeous songs are filled with…well, the same actually. Always one to pick an interesting cover song, tonight's subject is Prince's 'Raspberry Beret', a bubbly version with spine-tingling backing vocals. The latest album's tracklist features heavily, singles 'Diva Lady' and 'Lady Of A Certain Age' awash with strings and moving harmonies, while the brilliant, brilliant album opener 'To Die A Virgin', appropriately leads the two song encore. Elsewhere, Hannon revisits classic Divine Comedy moments such as 'Something for the Weekend', 'Generation Sex' and 'Tonight We Fly', and lesser known but no less excellent tracks 'Mastermind' and 'Don't Look Down'. Strangely, I feel, only 'Our Mutual Friend' appears from 2004's album Absent Friends, though possibly the arrangements on that LP were just too epic to recreate live without the full orchestra employed when they played the Royal Albert Hall.

Nevertheless, this gig has been - to use a word less associated with modern gigs - wonderful. Beautifully arranged, flawlessly played songs, and unlike any other artist in the mainstream eye. The Divine Comedy are a treat for all the people who appreciate the aesthetics of good, no, great music, and Portsmouth Pyramids has been filled with such people tonight. It's no Royal Albert Hall, but the obvious love for Neil Hannon and his troupe tonight is proof enough that The Divine Comedy are something special in music. An absolute delight.