Amid the invasion of English at the start of November, I fulfilled a long-held desire to see Neil Hannon live. This is one of those things that you keep wanting to do and being thwarted by complex interstices of money and tour dates. It was, however, no ordinary gig.
What it was was Tim Wheeler taking on to do a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Society and wrangling Neil Hannon and the Undertones into joining Ash in playing their debut albums straight through live. It was fantastic. Even in the Ulster Hall with the terrible sound. Oh my god, the sound. All that money restoring the place and the sound is still a disaster area.
Promenade is not, technically, Neil Hannon/Divine Comedy’s debut. However, that assumes anyone gave a damn. It was played. With vim, verve, style, a string quartet, a grand piano and many, many wails of ‘Oh god, this is so pretentious. I was twenty three! I didn’t know any better!’ These days, you see, when he’s being pretentious, he’s doing it on purpose.
Two songs in, he remembered why he doesn’t play this album, ‘Ow.’ There’s a level of crashing chords you can get away with when you’re twenty three that you suddenly regret once the RSI kicks in at forty. Then he got to ‘Booklovers’, admitted to not having read most of the authors when he wrote it, to not having read many more of them now, had another wail of ‘I was TWENTY THREE!’ (upon which the viola gave up and frankly cackled) and Ruth and I started counting. I’ve read all bar seven. Ruth reckons she’s missing about ten. Mike kept staring at us in disbelief and laughing.
I admit, I was there for ‘When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe’. I love that song completely and unreasonably. It did not disappoint. Promenade is, sort of, a narrative of a romance. Albeit a romance happening inside Neil Hannon’s rather worrying mind – French arthouse films and falling out of trees at the holiday house in Donegal where your parents always took you in the summer and people accidentally nearly drowning and inebriated shenanigans at New Year’s parties. And then he played ‘Tonight We Fly’ and nearly took the roof off, so he played the theme to Father Ted to finish off on general principles.
Then, of course, we had Ash. Playing 1977. Which was the first album where I went ‘Yes, I want that one. All of it.’ And then had to smuggle it into the house because my mother refused to buy it for me due to the Parental Advisory sticker HMV slapped on it (because of the graffiti on the album cover). This the same woman who let us listen to the Dubliners from an early age. I have no idea.
They haven’t changed much. Mark Hamilton’s managed to get skinnier, Rick McMurray has less hair, and Tim Wheeler has got over himself and the black nail polish, but the cheerful flailing, slagging and clutching of mic stands continues. By the time they hit ‘Goldfinger’ Ruth and I had reverted to fifteen and Amy had disowned us. Then they made Neil Hannon get up and sing ‘Oh Yeah’.
The man is not a natural rock star. He might make it sound better than Wheeler ever has, but he really can’t move right. I’ve never seen anyone look quite so out of their element. It was adorable.
I don’t have a lot of sensible things to say about this bit. These guys bypass my rational brain and hit the teenage-school-girl-crush like a hammer. Also they’re only a couple of years older than me, so much like Snow Patrol, you either know exactly where, who or what they’re singing about, or know people who do. Shared frame of reference. Sadly also shared 90s fashion mistakes, but luckily mine were not enacted in the public eye.
And yes, I did spend the rest of the week gleefully singing ‘Angel Interceptor’ and ‘Oh Yeah’ to myself. I’m not sure how the rest of them put up with me. Again, I may have imprinted like a baby duck at an extremely impressionable age. Don’t judge me. At least judge me quietly.
And then the Undertones, on last because they’d furthest to come, and having apparently spent the entire journey bickering like my aged aunts. Which they gleefully continued to do onstage as well. There’s a good thirty years of drummer-slagging going there and they daren’t stop now in case he gets above himself.
The years of gigging shows. There’s just a certain confidence that comes of having performed this thing a million times. Also the long and bitter experience with the Ulster Hall that leads to a roar of ‘Turn up John there! Savage, man!’ halfway through the first song and some exceedingly dirty looks directed at the sound engineer. Paul McLoone has an extremely expressive face. Actually, Paul McLoone has an extremely expressive everything, and those were really quite tight trousers.
He’s also never a met a bit of scenery he wouldn’t like to chew and Mickey Bradley and both O’Neills were therefore keeping a very safe distance away from their favourite mic-stand-wielding-lunatic. In between merciless slagging of Billy Doherty and pounding through their setlist like they wrote it yesterday. It was glorious.
We had to go early. I was fading fast and Mike and Amy were dead on their feet, so we missed the glorious comedy that was Neil Hannon and Ash joining in for Teenage Kicks, but what we got was more than worth it.