The Majestic Teatro Grande in Brescia is a perfect setting for the performance of The Divine Comedy, for once in Italy, not of Dante’s poem considered by many to be one of the greatest works in world literature, but, and I add thankfully, Neil Hannon’s wonderful band.
A novel experience is a good way to describe seeing this band live; novel, i.e strikingly new and different in that there is no other band in the British Isles who have such a solid body of work, made up of eclectic arrangements and sumptuous melodies, that have such intelligent and thought provoking lyrics enveloping the songs.Their live show so unfolds like a theatre piece, where every song has a story worthy of a novel, its plot unfolding through the words and actions of their inspirational characters in each song/chapter. The vaudevillian style Neil creates through his songs indeed has him dressing up as Napoleon Bonaparte and a City banker and its most captivating especially as his strong smooth voice allows his lyrics to be heard clearly.
The Teatro Grande is a grand old building dating back to 1664 and is suitably full tonight for the occasion. Support act is Lisa O’Neil from Calvan Ireland, whose heavy irish accent and Dylanesque acoustic guitar based songs from her latest album ‘Pothole in the Sky’ test the theatre’s acoustics admirably and set up the evening suitably.
About 10pm, the band amble on followed by Napoleon Neil and launch into ‘Sweden’ with its pompous almost orchestral vibe. A superb almost ‘Wilco’ like‘How Can You Leave Me On My Own’ from the new album ‘Foreverland’ follows. ‘The Frog Princess’ and ‘Catherine The Great’ is followed by the grunge like ‘Bad Ambassador’. This latest European tour by The Divine Comedy covers much of the ground, geographically that is, covered in the song ‘Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont’ as Neil eloquently describes in this little history lesson. ‘Napoleon Complex’, the delicious ‘Your Daddy’s Car’ with one of the most melodic choruses in pop history, ‘To The Rescue’ the new single and the symphonic laced‘The Certainty of Chance’ close the first section.
Neil returns with a bankers suit, tie, bowler and umbrella and the band launch into ‘The Complete Banker’ and ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ the title track of, for me, the best album made in this millennium. Its all so mesmerizing and the Italian theatre crowd get more and more appreciative especially in ‘Our Mutual Friend’ where Neil acts out the story all the way through the song.
‘Funny Peculiar’, a duet with Lisa O’Neil from the new album follows, leading into two acoustically led masterpieces, ‘A Lady Of a Certain Age’ and ‘Songs Of Love’.
Neil meanwhile has been cajoling and coaxing the crowd with interesting chat and nuances whilst sipping his Guinness, at one point, charmingly getting out drinks and supplying his band members, and he manages to get people out of their seats and yes, dance, at the front of the stage which can’t have happened very often in this theatre’s lifetime. A musical smorgasbord finale follows with ‘Something For The Weekend’, ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’, ‘At The Indie Disco’, ‘I Like’ and ‘National Express’, everyone a winner and even if not exactly hits, they are somewhat better expressions of pop music that have graced the charts of the last 20 plus years.
The encores that follow are the divine ’Assume The Perpendicular’, ‘Generation Sex’, a colouful, jovial ‘Under Pressure’ or let’s say ‘Under Brescia’ as Neil sang it and the final song ‘Tonight We Fly’ with its closing poignant words “ If heaven doesn’t exist, what we will have missed. This life is the best we’ve ever had.”
A mention for the five piece band whose dedication and excellence help make each song a listening experience with just the right delicate touches and flourishes added.
With other European dates, three live gigs at the London Palladium, Manchester and Dublin still to come this month, it’s a marvelous opportunity to see the band and live the moment. Maybe today, even Dante himself would concede that Paradiso is something like this.