Review of The Divine Comedy live at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on 12/11/2010

When a support act strolls onto the otherwise deserted stage of a jam-packed concert hall to be met by stone-cold silence, it becomes clear that the evening ahead isn't going to run entirely smoothly. Unfortunately, this was the disconcertingly reserved greeting singer-songwriter Cathy Davey received upon her entrance at the West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge last week as part of her stint supporting The Divine Comedy.

Divine Comedy

The injustice of it all is that the showcase of her sumptuous, smoky-toned songwriting that followed deserved nothing of the sort. Yet the performance did little to mine the potential generosity of an audience who made it plain that they were there for only one thing; bizarrely, that 'one thing' - The Divine Comedy himself, Northern-Irish singer-songwriter Neil Hannon - was not in for the easiest of evenings either.

Even Hannon's Mr Benn-themed entrance (suit, bowler hat, briefcase, theme tune all present and correct) was not quite enough to dispel the hint of awkwardness that had been instilled, and the accompanying cheers and rhythmic clapping marked the height of spontaneity for the evening. This was a true concert hall audience; politeness was the buzzword and the predominantly passive attitude towards banter and unsolicited participation was a clear signal that all the energy was expected to come from the stage. Despite Hannon's faultless showmanship and occasional pleas, the gig held many an uncomfortable silence; his high gin-and-tonic sip-rate was completely understandable.

It was fortunate, then, that the back-catalogue in question remains one of the richest in music today. Ten albums containing some of the finest orchestral pop proved the perfect ice breaker, with Hannon immediately spanning almost two decades in his song choices; opening with the robust 'Assume The Perpendicular' from this year's Bang Goes The Knighthood before skipping back to the 1993 debut album Liberation with 'The Pop Singer's Fear Of The Pollen Count', he then explained away his attire with the satirical stomper 'The Complete Banker'.

Accompanying himself on the piano gave Hannon an opportunity to exhibit just how accomplished a songwriter he is, his trademark knack for quirky chords and infectious melody evident in such a minimal setting. The setlist interspersed material from his latest offering with more cemented fan-favourites, classics 'The Summerhouse', 'Becoming More Like Alfie' and 'Songs Of Love' all getting an outing. While many artists with careers the length of this man's must tire of their material, Hannon visibly kept his music fresh and exciting, constantly reinventing his vocal delivery, his wonderful baritone never lacking in character.

The almost religious politeness of the crowd did add to the gravitas of songs with weightier subject matter; the acoustic guitar-based 'A Lady Of A Certain Age' was particularly poignant, while the hall's Steinway lent the evolution from the subdued to the tragic in 'Our Mutual Friend' a sense of the epic.

Finally the audience were coaxed into action, responding brilliantly to Hannon's request for clapping during 'At The Indie Disco', 'Tonight We Fly' inspiring relative uproar and encore 'National Express' prompting nothing short of a sing-a-long. It took long enough.

It all begs the question as to whether the concert hall really is becoming an unsuitable venue for popular music. Perhaps the Cambridge crowd in a more down-to-earth setting might have imbued an entirely different atmosphere; the previous evening Hannon had triumphed in front of a dramatically warmer gathering at Sheffield's Leadmill, the polar opposite on the spectrum of venues. But that's an entirely different discussion to be had. At the end of the day, no visible lack of enthusiasm was enough to keep Neil Hannon's superlative talent as a performer down; the night was truly his.

Rich Powell

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