The Divine Comedy are already two numbers into their set at Brighton Dome while streams of punters are still trying to find their seats. “Thank you for being so punctual,” quips singer and ringmaster Neil Hannon. It’s hardly a grand opening to the performance, especially for a band with such theatrical flair, but his comments are down-to-earth, humble and funny. For the next hour and a half Hannon continues in the same vein, leading his five musicians through assorted set-piece surprises and a variety of styles from pop to orchestral pomp.
Perhaps it’s because The Divine Comedy have such a varied and wide repertoire (last year’s album ‘Foreverland’ was their eleventh) that some of the songs on tonight’s set fall flat. For every ‘Generation Sex’ and ‘Catherine The Great’ we get two songs like… well, the ones we don’t remember. You can’t please everyone all the time, but it’s certainly possible to keep them hanging on during some filler for the next flash of brilliance. For us the ratio is about 2:1, but we’re not complaining.
‘Everybody Knows (Except You)’ is arguably the band’s most straightforward pop song and it works a treat. Played at a jauntier tempo than on the original recording, the song gets a group of fans – all female – out of their seats and dancing in the aisles. Hannon, although appreciative, finds himself in the awkward position of having to usher them away with the warning that the next few tunes aren’t ones you’d really want to dance to anyway.
From here we move from Britpop to something more like Brel, as Hannon performs a suite of songs centred on the tragicomic anti-heroine of ‘A Lady Of A Certain Age’. This remarkable song, which recounts the rise and fall of a fictional socialite, is affecting, insightful and a lyrical gem. The evocative references to 1960s high society remind us fondly of Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?’, so it’s a truly pleasant surprise to find that Sarstedt’s rags-to-riches ballad is next on the list. The Divine Comedy do a superb version of the song, accordion intro and all, and there’s a sense that Hannon is not only admitting his influences, but inviting us to join him in appreciating them. Somehow it makes the song all the more special.
“I really like being here, it’s a lovely theatre,” he says during one of many impromptu conversations with the audience. “I think we should be here always.” By this point, everyone in the Dome would seem to agree. During an extended outro to ‘Our Mutual Friend’, Hannon leaves the stage and reappears in time for ‘Napoleon Complex’ now dressed in the guise of Bonaparte himself. It’s a prop that keeps on giving as the band strike up a rendition of ‘Waterloo’, with Hannon clearly relishing the chance to play the tune on the same stage that ABBA first performed it when they made Eurovision history in 1974. Everyone is on their feet now, even up on the balconies, and the dancers from before are vindicated by the silly joy of the moment.
The concert turns a corner here and the atmosphere becomes palpably upbeat. The hits that the band had been keeping in reserve, like ‘National Express’ and ‘Something For The Weekend’ get an airing, as does the Father Ted theme tune ‘Songs Of Love’. Hannon sounds out the crowd about the idea of a musical based on the show and we’re not entirely sure if he’s joking, but most people are hoping he’s not.
‘At The Indie Disco’ is another late-set highlight, which namechecks Blur and The Wannadies before breaking out into a full-blown cover of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’. Obviously it goes down a storm, and even the retro references can’t diminish the sense that The Divine Comedy are still a vital musical force, a band that has quietly outlived many of their 90s contemporaries. We came half expecting a sickly dose of nostalgia, but fell in love with a handful of tunes we’d never heard before and left wanting to hear even more.
Brighton Dome, Friday 1st December 2017
Words by Ben Bailey
Photos by Xavier Clarke