Aaron Drain reviews Divine Comedy at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival

Though arguably never quite inhabiting the same sort of popular public headspace as an outfit like Paul Heaton’s Beautiful South, Neil Hannon and his Divine Comedy have been writing and performing music of a similar ilk for nearly three decades. A career’s worth of writing and singing about life’s little annoyances, triumphs, and banalities, though, for better or for worse, occasionally interspersing this modus operandi with grandiose stream-of-consciousness storytelling that has proven, critically speaking, as divisive as it has welcome.

There are times when The Divine Comedy’s work is easily located in the realm of the explicitly theatrical, Hannon isn’t difficult to spot peacocking his way through domestic, fantastical, historical or contemporary subject matter and the output has been refreshing when it has hit the mark; slightly baffling when it hasn’t. Fitting, then, that this CQAF performance offers exactly what you’d expect if you’ve followed the band since the ‘90s.

Engaging

In terms of delivery, there’s much to relish. Hannon, eccentrically costumed (in a couple of guises throughout the evening) and with a wry confidence, is an engaging and personable performer; the roars of adulation permeating this tented square makes for a convincing case. But it’s the bringing to life of songs like ‘National Express’, ‘How Could You Leave Me On My Own’, or ‘Sweden‘, songs that many tonight will have cherished in their record collections, that emboldens Hannon and co. as savvy hooksters flogging uncomplicated pop, ungoverned by the heavier side of everyday reality.

That being said, for all the nostalgic euphoria spilling out from the Father Ted fans’ plastic pint glasses, a cover of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Alfie’ and a bastardised version of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ during ‘At The Indie Disco’ feel forced when they should imply whimsy and spontaneity. Further, when the operatic side of Hannon’s exercise sets out its stall in the form of ‘Catherine the Great’, ’Napoleon Complex’ and ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’, there’s a yearning for the performance to return to unfettered musings on young romance or millennial woe.

Flamboyance

That’s not to state that this aspect of the proceedings is sub-par, tongue-in-cheek has served The Divine Comedy very well for a very long time, but for all the flamboyance and foppish excursions into literary or historical obscurity, the distinctly more sombre shades of Hannon’s sonic palate are engrossing when they emerge. ‘Funny Peculiar’, featuring tonight’s support act Lisa O’Neill, as an example, flexes a more introspective, musically satisfying muscle.

A six-piece proposition for this brief festival stint, The Divine Comedy satisfy with regard to instrumentation, though this is likely more a case of Hannon playing composer to his backing band’s quintet.

Enjoyable

And why not? The driving force behind the outfit since 1989, his is a charge that has enabled this brimming marquee to have a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The question is when The Divine Comedy makes its way around the island for another live tour in a few months’ time, how much will have changed?

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