Neil Hannon’s has pulled off the extraordinary feat of making records for over twenty five years without ever seeming dated or tired. Perhaps it’s because of the repeated reinvention of what the Divine Comedy amounts to, or just that infrequent releases (it’s been a six year wait for “Foreverland”) keep us hungry for more. Whatever the reason, there was a tangible sense of anticipation in the Lower Common Room of UEA while waiting for the man and his band to appear.
UEA’s bizarre weekend curfew meant an inordinately early start, which in turn meant that most folk were still entering the auditorium when Naomi Hamilton, performing under the name of Jealous of the Birds, started her support set. This was a great shame for her, but a lovely way to start your evening – wandering in to the sound of a sublimely beautiful voice accompanied by lone acoustic guitar. Sat front of stage on a hearth rug, illuminated by table lamp, it was if she had been beamed in from her front room while privately noodling. It quickly became apparent that newcomers were homing in, not to the bar as one might expect, but straight down into the performance area, as if drawn by a siren towards the rocks, so that by the time she closed with a haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, there was to something approaching a full house in attendance.
It’s been a few years since Divine Comedy was more than Hannon and some other blokes, something the staging and lighted emphasised from the outset with what was an essentially rock outfit in sharp suits – no sign of the strings and brass of yesteryear – hugging the periphery of the stage in dim light. Hannon then took centre stage, literally in the spotlight for a restrained start, with tracks off more recent albums easing the evening into life, before rewinding right back to the mid-nineties for “Something for the Weekend”. Inevitably, his breakthrough hit got a great reception, and more of the same followed, but Hannon was careful to distribute easy wins – the likes of “Alfie” and “Generation Sex” – throughout the set, leaving room for material that reviewed so much more of career. Significantly it was the earnest, Britpop influenced, “Regeneration” period that was all but skipped over, perhaps because the latest album so obviously harkens back to more whimsical times. “Catherine the Great” and “How can you leave me on my own” found Hannon with his tongue firmly back in his cheek, while “Napoleon Complex” was delivered in full, epaulette twirling, costume.
Along the way we were offered a witty Peter Sarstedt cover, lots of affable chatter, and some theatrical business with drink dispensing, candles, and quite a bit of lying down. For the most part, however, this was a straight ahead, no-nonsense run through of an impressive checklist of tunes, with a magical version of “Everybody Knows” as perhaps the single greatest highlight. There were times where his desire to showcase so much of the back catalogue was at the cost of momentum, particularly for those of us who fondly recall his Nymanesque roots, but after a mammoth set that ran close to two hours he still got the crowd jumping about with “National Express”, in what was the perfect conclusion to the main set.
Of course, they came back.
“Who would have guessed,” said Hannon, in a self-deprecating manner typical of the evening, “that the people of Norwich would clap so much we’d have to play some more?” before closing with the sweet “Songs of Love” and the soaring “Tonight We Fly.”