Live Review: The Divine Comedy with Jealous of the Birds at Birmingham Institute – 24th November 2017

By on Thursday, 7th December 2017 at 2:00 pm
 

It had been a good 11 years since I’d first visited Birmingham in the West Midlands. What better reason to return is there but a gig? Formerly the HMV Institute and now part of the O2 empire, the Institute was once a church and even a civic hall of Birmingham City Council. But these days, the only collars you’ll likely see in here are those on leather jackets. Brum was only the third stop on The Divine Comedy’s winter 2017 tour, following Edinburgh and Leeds and in support of Neil Hannon’s most recent album ‘Foreverland’, released in September 2016. My review of the LP is through here.

Opening for Hannon and crew was Naomi Hamilton, better known in the indie music blogosphere by her more fanciful nom de plume Jealous of the Birds. She performed solely with her voice and guitar. The heavily pierced songwriter commented that her stage setup was decidedly ‘granny chic’; it included a Divine Comedy mug she admitted she nicked from the merch table outside. She began with the catchy ‘Goji Berry Sunset’, a single that was a longtime staple on BBC 6 Music long before we caught up with her at SXSW 2016. There was something enchantingly arresting by her performance, as she sung and played the title track of her 2016 album ‘Parma Violets’ completely at ease. She ended her all too short set with a haunting cover of ‘Suzanne’, a wonderful tribute to the late Leonard Cohen.

Jealous of the Birds Birmingham

Trying to describe the numerous emotions and topics Neil Hannon has touched upon during the many years The Divine Comedy have been in action would be a difficult exercise. He’s gone through a good number of phases over nearly 3 decades, most recently being funny about cricket with the Duckworth Lewis Method in 2009, guffawing at the unlikelihood of being recognised by the Queen in 2010’s ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ and last year’s ‘Foreverland’. On his latest album, it appears his preoccupation with things French (‘Napoleon Complex’), female monarchs (‘Catherine the Great’) and indeed, the female he holds dearest in his life, fellow musician and partner Cathy Davey, have directed him artistically as of late.

In the ‘90s version of The Divine Comedy, back when there were actually other members of the band besides Hannon, songs like ‘Everybody Knows (Except You)’ showed his sweeter, cuddlier innocent side. On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Generation Sex’, ‘Something for the Weekend’ and ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ proved there was a naughtier, sleazier version of the songwriter all too eager to come out. He was the kind of artist who could get away with this kind of frank songwriting because ultimately, he was singing of the things that didn’t come up in polite conversation but the rest of us were dying to say.

Divine Comedy Birmingham 1

He sings all too joyfully about the ‘National Express’ – which, incidentally, brought me from Manchester Airport to Birmingham that afternoon – without it coming across too schmaltzy. The brilliance that is ‘At the Indie Disco’ even came across fresher than its first airing around the release of ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’: at the mention of “she makes my heart beat the same way / as at the start of ‘Blue Monday’”, he and his band launched into an entirely unexpected interlude, a cover of the New Order classic, complete with seizure-inducing strobe lighting. Hannon clearly has wonderful rapport with his current live band, calling his piano- and accordion-playing bandmate a man with a “squeezy” and thanking his guitar tech for bringing him one of his axes with, “yes, I know what that is! A strummy strum strum!” If I didn’t know he was nearly 50 and could only hear him, I’d guess he was probably half his actual age. Do men ever grow up? Ha, I guess not.

Martin previously wrote about The Divine Comedy’s headline appearance at this year’s Deer Shed, proclaiming that Hannon was the best headliner to date of the family-friendly festival in Baldersby Park. Certainly, seeing an artist like him in a listed building like the Institute is going to be an entirely different experience than you’d have at an open-air festival. While I did enjoy the show, the gimmickry of Hannon’s Napoleon-esque costume, along with a refusal to lay down in the pit as he has in other places such as in Bristol because the floor was gross seemed a bit prima donna. I guess of all people, Neil Hannon is allowed to be so. As an Irish national treasure and a songwriting genius, he’s earned that right.

Divine Comedy Birmingham 2

After the cut: The Divine Comedy’s set list.

The Divine Comedy Set List:
Down in the Street Below
To Die a Virgin
Absent Friends
Generation Sex
The Summer House
Catherine the Great
Everybody Knows (Except You)
Becoming More Like Alfie
Don’t Look Down
The Plough
Eye of the Needle
My Happy Place
A Lady of a Certain Age
Neapolitan Girl
Our Mutual Friend
How Can You Leave Me on My Own?
To the Rescue
Something for the Weekend
At the Indie Disco
I Like
National Express
//
Songs of Love
Tonight We Fly

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