GIG REVIEW: The Divine Comedy

I've seen enough Divine Comedy gigs, by this stage, to rate Neil Hannon less on the quality of the content and more on the nature of the performance. Despite his niche audience and distinct style you can never put a finger on what Hannon is going to come up with or perform in next. Nearly a decade ago, he was sitting down at the piano in a banker's bowler hat, and a couple of years ago, he quite literally had a Napoleon Complex in that famed French emperor’s costume.

This time around, in Belfast’s Ulster Hall, he's ditching all of that for a suit tarted up like one of those old test cards you used to see on the BBC. Perhaps it's because, along with the office doors, office computer and office desk you see on the set, he needs to test himself again – by tackling Office Politics in his latest album. You can't say he's not trying to go the extra mile, which is something of a blessed relief after the airy-fairy nature of Foreverland.

Warrington-based support act Man And The Echo have a lot to live up to, their uniqueness being less pronounced. But there is still, if you'll forgive the use of the word, something "divine" about them. They don't have to look like pop or rock legends to be impressive – as with, possibly, Hannon himself, an apparently diminutive timidity belies an increasingly confident presence, with a lead singing voice worthy of Ian McCulloch circa Ocean Rain positively shining alongside tuneage reminiscent of ELO. 

Retro experimentation, you might say – the very thing Hannon and his band do much of in this gig, looking back and forward for a set list that is actually rather muddled in tone but quite fitting for our confusing times. With that quite expectant self-knowing awareness of an impending Brexit, the electric and frankly excellent Europop is quickly followed by an energetic Generation Sex. An appropriately Euroclectic prelude to what will amount to an endearing mess up of tracks as only Hannon can deliver them. 

After these, the calm elegance of Commuter Love is appreciative but almost a shock, barely preparing us for a possibly too sudden lurch to the catchy Queuejumper and the rap in the new album's title track. For lack of better words, it's a case of beauty and the beast, then from the beast to the beauty – which, while keeping an eager crowd on their toes, isn't averse to the odd clunker. Come Home Billy Bird just doesn't feel right without strings – maybe that's why Our Mutual Friend is omitted?

Yet it wouldn't really be right to project the gig one wants to see ahead of the gig one does see – and the reckless appeal of its star and the music never really wavers. The incessant, and repeatedly turned down, requests for My Lovely Horse don't matter – there is just so much to enjoy or at least admire here. The thrill of hearing To The Rescue and A Lady Of A Certain Age, both timeless and dreamy, remains undimmed, in the centre of a cascade of colourful tomfoolery and rather jocular innovation. 

Leaving aside Hannon's rather flat attempt at Kraftwerk lite, there are brand new Divine Comedy pleasures to be found in the Doctor Who-esque Infernal Machines, the espionage in You'll Never Work In This Town again, a clever use of clapping in Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company and the genuinely spellbinding Feather In My Cap. It is topped off with a near instrument free encore featuring, expectedly, National Express. In short, it is a pretty much "par for the course" gig for Derry-Londonderry and Enniskillen's favourite musical son – which is just about all everyone in the Ulster Hall can hope for and delights in experiencing.

Simon Fallaha

The Divine Comedy performed in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, as part of the Office Politics tour on Monday 07 October. Photo: Bernie McAllister.

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