Have you ever been unfortunate enough to break the elastic on your party hat, mid-party? If you have, you’ll remember that the sensation is both physically and emotionally mortifying: you can no longer wear the same hat as everyone else, so you’re not embracing the party spirit as fully as you might like, and your cheek stings. Imagine this happening with a party hat given to you (if somewhat indirectly) by one of your musical heroes at his 42nd birthday party and still managing to have a splendid night.
Arriving at the Royal Festival Hall for Neil Hannon’s birthday party, party hats and horns are standard issue for all audience members and the stage is adorned with a massive, (and as it turns out strategically placed) pile of presents to the right of the grand piano. As the lights go down, 2,500 people who ought to know better buzz a party blower welcome to Hannon in the darkness. A tone of impetuousness has already been set, and the centre of attention hasn’t even shown up yet.
Strolling on wearing the grin of a man filled with exuberant delight at turning a year older, Hannon takes a seat at the piano for the first song of the night, ‘Happy Birthday.’ The auditorium sings along without missing a beat but the final, custom-composed verse leaves us all behind, thumping us each squarely in the forehead with Neil Hannon’s trademark whimsy:
“I am not 41, I am not 43. I am 42 years old, Happy Birthday to me.”
Part One (which we shall call ‘Greatest Hits’) gets started with ‘Horizontal Life’ and ‘The Lost Art of Conversation’. Both are equally joyful in tone, and include the first of many good-natured screw ups (par for the course at a Divine Comedy show). These slips are charmingly defended with a quick burst of “It’s my birthday and I’ll fuck it up if I want to” (to the tune of Lesley Gore’s ‘It’s My Party’). Funnily enough, this isn’t the last time that particular melody pops up.
Tom Chapman from Keane pays Neil a visit on stage (Neil read a W.B. Yeats poem at a Keane concert a couple of years ago, so Chapman is returning the favour). Belting out ‘Love What You Do’, he has us forgetting it’s a Divine Comedy song at all. When he skips off stage, Neil sadly acknowledges that his voice is astonishing and unmatchable, and gets on with the next song in a brief fug of moroseness.
‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’, the opening bars of which are beautifully complemented by a perfectly-timed light show – one hanging strand of giant fairy lights is lit per note – has us all hushed by the sheer prettiness of it all. This is the point at which I grinned too hard and my hat pinged off. It hurt.
When we get to ‘Indie Disco’, Neil rolls out the same old ‘let’s all clap along to Indie Disco’ joke fans have been hearing for some years, but we all randomly slap our hands together like idiot seals anyway, and it’s still enough to set plenty of people off chuckling.
Neil’s second guest is only Alison EFFING Moyet. She brings a magnificent, bluesy depth to proceedings, first singing Yazoo hit ‘Don’t Go’ (Moyet began her career in Yazoo in the early eighties), followed by Neil’s own ‘Certainty of Chance’. She manages to make Neil both sound (and look) tiny, a mighty-lunged Amazon in the house of a dapper, unassuming Irishman.
A couple of comical live set pieces follow: a massive, illuminated 42 on wheels arrives on stage, a man pops onstage mid-shave with a towel draped over his shoulders to replace Neil’s capo.
Rounding up the first section of the show, ‘Songs of Love’ offers an opportunity for the audience, not entirely tunelessly, to aid the instrumental interlude through the medium of the party blower. The less said of our performance, the better.
To open Part Two, the bulk of the presents are removed to unveil a string quartet, who accompany Neil through a track-by-track recitation of 1994 concept album Promenade. Popular amongst many fans, this was something of a dry choice for such a celebratory occasion, and whilst the execution was unutterably beautiful this was, at least for us, the least exciting part of the show.
After shuttling between his guitar and grand piano throughout the night, Hannon settles down to complete his encore on a stage that looked like the set for a one man drama about an eccentric, reclusive millionaire: four empty seats and music stands surrounded by presents, piano, giant illuminated 42 and a wheeled trolley bearing a half-mauled cake.
He finishes with a holy triumvirate of classic Divine Comedy: ‘National Express’, ‘Charmed Life’, (which he dedicates to “me, my daughter, and all my family and friends, and you),” and beautifully doomed ‘Our Mutual Friend’. In total, Neil has cracked out a total of 28 songs. We wouldn’t have been more impressed if he’d somehow managed to fit in 42.
The Lost Art of Conversation
Love What You Do (guest vocals from Tom Chapman)
Bang Goes the Knighthood
Don’t Go (with Alison Moyet)
Certainty of Chance (with Alison Moyet)
Perfect Love Song
Of a Certain age
Songs of Love
Going Downhill Fast
A Seafood Song
Don’t Look Down
When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe
A Drinking Song
Ten Seconds to Midnight
Tonight We Fly
Ode to the Man
Our Mutual Friend