The Divine Comedy - Haldern Festival, 7th August 2004

"Outlandish and preposterous. You should have been there."


I have waited a long time to catch up with Neil Hannon, so twiddling my thumbs for an hour and a half waiting for them to set up the stage didn't bother me that much, although it has to be said that a fair percentage of the Haldern crowd; the sun-stroke suffering drunken percentage in fact, were getting a little restless. Eventually the rope lights suspended in a lazy web like fashion above the stage were switched on and the full orchestra, violinists, kettle drummers et al were seated and wired up. At about 00:45 a small, skinny guy in a black suit walked onto the stage and if Haldern had have had a roof, it would have blown right off. The welcome for Neil Hannon and co was remarkable, but not half as remarkable as the performance that was to follow. Nobody does pretentious like the Divine Comedy, so seeing Hannon surrounded on stage by a full orchestra, at a festival as small and homely as Haldern, just made me smile.Within the space of a few songs, right around the time 'Becoming More Like Alfie' arrived in the set list, I was almost overwhelmed.

The Divine Comedy have always been a fun band to listen to. Lots of brass, layers of strings and a big dollop of nudge nudge, wink wink humour have made their little character driven songs as easy to swallow as a cold beer on a hot day. For some reason, probably to do with the fact that Hannon seems to have his tongue firmly in his cheek at all times, people have dismissed the Divine Comedy as something of a novelty band, but anybody who was in the audience here tonight knows that there's something quite special about them.

In a world where labels won't sign anybody that doesn't want to be the Velvet Underground, Radiohead or Coldplay the Divine Comedy are a breath of fresh air. And they always have been. I love the Velvets, the Head and, well not so much Coldplay as the rest of you, but it's so refreshing to find a band that want to sound like John Barry instead of Lou Reed and Thom Yorke. The Divine Comedy are different, to be sure, but they are a fantastic band and wonderful company.

Actually this is a brand new Divine Comedy, what with Neil releasing the former members from their contracts and going it alone for new album Absent Friends. Tonight's line up was ridiculously new in fact, so new that Neil didn't even know the name of the orchestra he was playing with but despite them not having much time to rehearse, (We're told less than a full day), tonight's set breezed along without any mishaps and built itself up to a tremendous, dramatic and thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

Having dispersed of the old band thankfully did not mean that the old favourites were discarded however, with Becoming More Like Alfie, Songs of Love and a wonderfully quirky Generation Sex all making welcome appearances in the set list tonight. What will make the set particularly though was that the highlights were all new material, whether it be the majestic Absent Friends, excellent The Happy Goth or the sublime Our Mutual Friend, which must be the best song Hannon's ever written. A song that combines lost love, back stabbing friends, a hatred of nightclubs and a backing score powerful enough to make you blub like a baby it soared into the night sky, lifting everybody's hearts and spirits in the process. Wonderful stuff.

Another delight came with the banjo driven cover of No One Knows by Queens of the Stone Age. Taking the song apart and rebuilding it with strings, accordion, piano and that grin inducing banjo to make it complete. It was a wonderfully quirky cover version. It served as a perfect homage to a great song, yet turned it into something completely different and fresh, as all the great cover versions have done. If this isn't a single or at least a B-side somewhere down the line, then life really isn't fair. Everybody should get the chance to hear this.

The main set came to a close with a perfect rendition of This Charmed Life, sang from the heart and devoted to Neil's daughter back in Dublin. That was followed by a trip back to the Promenade album and the uptempo delight that is Tonight We Fly. True, it's one of Hannon's most outlandish and preposterous arrangements, but it just soared tonight. I told you, nobody does pretentious like the Divine Comedy.

Quite why National Express pleases me so much I'm not sure, maybe it's because I used to spend hours on the bloody uncomfortable things travelling to and from university, but it's a song that fills me with joy and whenever I hear it, I just have to join in with the Ba Ba Badas. Tonight, as part of the encore, it was even better. Leaping down to the photographer's pit, Hannon dragged the entire front row into the act, thrusting the microphone into startling faces and while the words National Express were bellowed in 19 different accents, the rest of us just danced our asses off. Truly exceptional.

Quite simply this was one of the most entertaining, life affirming, joyous occasions I've ever had the pleasure to experience. I wish you could have been there.


Words, Photographs & Illustration : Damian Leslie