DC’s Review of CROWDED HOUSE at The Forum, Melbourne, 2nd Dec 2008

[Originally on Facebook Notes] Here’s my belated review of the recent top notch Crowded House show in Melbourne, Australia. I’m writing this nearly two weeks after the show, and forgetting a lot of the details, so if anyone has a recording of the show I’d love to have a copy!

BACKGROUND

Crowded House are known for their unpredictable shows with improvised music, banter and on-the-fly audience interaction, and Tuesday, 2nd December at Melbourne’s Forum Theatre was a classic of the genre. (Although I have to admit I came late to them and have only seen them live a handful of times – I do, however, have numerous live recordings and videos so I am still qualified to make this statement!)

This was the first of two Melbourne warm-up shows for the band’s appearance at Sydney’s Homebake Festival. The house was packed.

For those of you who are not already fans of the band, I should mention that they split around 1996 and sealed their career with a massive free farewell concert outside the Sydney Opera House, which was also preceded by two wonderful warm-up shows at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne which my wife Marjie and I had the pleasure of attending.

Leader Neil Finn subsequently embarked on an interesting but slightly disappointing (to me) solo career, releasing two albums on his own and one with his brother Tim, interspersed by other projects such as a Split Enz reunion tour and a collaboration with musicians such as ex-members of Radiohead, the Smiths and Pearl Jam.

In the meantime, their much loved drummer and manic funny man, Paul Hester, sadly took his own life a few years ago, leaving a big gap which seemed impossible to fill. However, to many people’s surprise, Neil reformed the band a couple of years ago the new Crowded House are producing new songs and albums and generally acting as a vital unit, unlike some play-the-hits-take-the-money-and-run nostalgia merchants.

New drummer Matt Sherrod (ex-Beck) does his job admirably from a musical point of view, and wisely doesn’t try to emulate Hester’s humour and stage presence.

Original bassist Nick Seymour and guitarist/keyboardist Mark Hart (who joined as a fully-fledged member around the recording of their last pre-split album) are also back in the fold.

THE VENUE

Melbourne can lay claim to being the band’s spiritual home as they formed here and were based here for most of their career. The Forum Theatre is a fascinating place in itself, with ‘stars’ glowing from its ceiling, and faux architecture and Roman statues visible in large balconies to each side of the stage, giving the illusion of being outdoors in an exotic locale.

Apart from diners at the back of the room, most of the audience were standing fairly well-packed in front of the stage. Marjorie and I were around ten rows of fans back from the stage, and the sound was very good and, as usual at Crowded House shows, not too loud. The drums sounded natural, without that annoying, larger-then-life quality that you get too often nowadays.

THE ENTRANCE

The band came onstage with the house and stage lights down, wearing those miner-style camping lamps that you put on your head. They played the first song, ‘Locked Out’, like that, so that you couldn’t really see their faces. I think some stage lights also swept across the audience. It was like a low-budget version of something Neil Young might do. Quite artistic, really, and it actually felt faintly moving that they might have been implying that they wanted to see the audience rather than being seen by them.

When they discarded the lamps and the stage lights came up we could see that they were wearing the trim, dapper suits that they seem to have taken to this century. Neil’s hair hasn’t got any rulier. Nick was almost shaven-headed.

A little later Neil revealed that he had cut his forehead (very slightly) taking the lamps off after the first song, and he and Nick joked about how rock’n’roll that was. They said that there was a fine line between rock’n’roll and stupidity, and I think it was Neil who wondered if there is a line at all. Someone said that rock’n’roll was stupidity with lamps attached.

They talked a bit about which shops they had searched in that day for the lamps, and of course it was endearing to know that it hadn’t been some kind of long-hatched, professionally staged stunt.

Once the lights came up we could see a fabric backdrop painted to look a little like wallpapered walls with framed paintings of various members of the band, along with a couple of slightly weird androgynous nudes. Probably Nick’s work, but I’m only guessing.

THE HELP

The band have often used auxiliary musicians over the years, with Neil’s son Liam recently holding down guitar duties, Eddie Rayner out of Split Enz playing his baroque keyboards in their early days, and I recall Jools their female roadie playing keyboards occasionally. Tonight Neil’s younger son, Elroy, lurked in the shadows playing acoustic and electric guitars for many of the songs. He sported a beard not quite as fulsome as his older brother’s, and an immaculately coiffed hairdo which could probably absorb quite a few bullets if necessary.

Rather more visible was Don McGlashan, who used to be the leader of the sadly defunct Mutton Birds, and must nearly equal Neil Finn as a beloved New Zealand singer-songwriter and all-round national treasure. Marjorie and I adored the Mutton Birds (BTW, you can see our names on ‘Flock’, their Greatest Hits CD!) so it was rather strange, and in fact unsettling, to see him up there as a general musical dogsbody and not get the chance to sing any of his own compositions. We had assumed he would be the support act, but no, that was the enjoyable but unremarkable Anika Moa.

Anyway, as I mentioned, Don was at least visually quite prominent, with a modest elevated home behind Nick stage left. He had a small electronic keyboard close to hand, a guitar or two, a little gourd-like mandolinish thingy, a toy piano, something like a fluegel horn, and of course, his trusty euphonium. When I spotted its comforting form I yelled in Marjorie’s ear, “Don’s got his euphonium!” and she nodded in enthusiastic acknowledgment. However, a minute later she yelled back in my ear, “I thought you said he’s got his wee podium!”

Don also popped up over on the Mark side of the stage playing the real keyboards once in a while.

THE MAIN SET

The review in Melbourne newspaper The Age* referred to the set as ‘fan-friendly’ and indeed it was. There was only one indisputable classic in the entire main set, ‘Fall At Your Feet’, and that didn’t come until near the end.

I guess I should fend off arguments by stating that ‘World Where You Live’, the second song, is a near-classic, but not quite of the same mass-recognisability as ‘Weather With You’ or ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ (which didn’t get an airing tonight).

The audience didn’t seem to mind the five new songs they played, although I have to say I found them a little dull, rather like some of the lesser songs on ‘Time On Earth’, the band’s first post-reformation album, which had started out as a Neil solo album. I expect they’ll grow on me, though.

‘Lucky’ was the title of one of the new songs and they attempted to throw in a bit of The Kinks’ ‘Lola’ but they didn’t really know the chords – there’s one to practise for next time! Another impromptu cover was ‘You Sexy Thing’, one I’ve heard them do before.

One of the greater songs on ‘Time On Earth’ was ‘Don’t Stop Now’, which to me was a little flat on this occasion. Nick seemed a little uncomfortable playing the keyboard bit at the beginning while holding his bass, and the whole thing never quite took off. I’ve seen them do it before perfectly successfully though – I guess it might have been just another thing to iron out on the warm-up show.

Pineapple Head segued into a cover of The Beatles’ ‘The End’ which was rather nice.

Neil referred to the fact that he had dreamed the previous night about being in bed with Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway out of Radiohead. Those two appeared on his ‘Seven Worlds Collide’ project a few years ago, and are scheduled to play with him again when he revisits the concept next year.

When Paul was around it seemed that almost all the banter and humour originated with him, but now Neil and Nick are almost as chatty as ever without him. Nick was famously very much against splitting the band, and you get the impression that he’s very happy indeed to be up there again. Perhaps the fact that he had become a father a few weeks previously also had a bearing on his cheerful demeanour. He talked with fondness about going that day to Bernard’s Magic Shop on Elizabeth Street which he used to visit as a child but realising now that all the toys and tricks were really crap.

At one point Neil managed to rib Nick, as he often does, about the Seymour Family Singers, his family’s band which he was in with his parents and siblings when he was growing up. Snippets from such classics as ‘Three Little Maids From School’ ensued.

The normally taciturn Mark actually went up to the mike and opened his mouth as if he was going to speak, but then changed his mind. Later on, though, he actually did come up with a few words, as I recall.

I was particularly happy to hear a couple of my favourites, ‘Not The Girl You Think You Are’ and ‘Whispers And Moans’, and the opening bars of both were greeted with warm recognition from the audience, suggesting that I am not the only one to hold those two songs in high regard. They also revived the great ‘Chocolate Cake’, which was preceded by a series of samples that featured in the Woodface recording of the song. Afterwards there were some allusions to Obama and his recently announced ‘Money Team’ but rather than give an unqualified vote of confidence to their ability to get the world out of recession, Neil circumspectly said, “we’ll just have to wait and see”.

Before the gig Marjorie and I had noted a person at the bar dressed up in fancy dress as 1965 Bob Dylan or John Cooper Clarke (take your pick) with elaborate yet immovable hair. During ‘Love You Til The Day I Die’ this creature joined the band, played a lively guitar solo and was introduced as Davey Lane from You Am I. There’s a tradition around here for people to chant “The Best Cold Beer Is Vic” at a certain point in this song, but tonight Neil had to do it himself with hardly any help from the audience, and he seemed a little disappointed. I think it was originally a Paul Hesterism, but perhaps someone can help me out with the story. The phrase itself is a slogan for our local king of beers, Victoria Bitter.

THE FIRST ENCORE

In the first encore we were treated to ‘It’s Only Natural’, another big fave of Marjie’s and mine, and it was good, as always, but they didn’t really play that odd but lovely riff properly at the beginning, and, as in all the Woodface Tim/Neil songs, Tim’s backing vocals were sorely missed. I’ve seen shows before where Mark did a reasonably good job of replicating them, but at this show they were very weak indeed and one had to sing them oneself to achieve anything approaching the desired effect. I guess this is what ‘warm-up’ shows are for!

Neil asked the audience if they had any questions for the band and then found a loose microphone on a lead and asked the audience to pass it around to the speakers. He asked us to police ourselves and was duly impressed by the orderly fashion in which this was done, and even more so by the fact that the microphone returned intact at the end of it all. (Not quite as cute as a tale I once heard of Don’s euphonium being crowd-surfed from soundboard to stage with a few detours in between.)

One guy mentioned that his wife was about to have a baby and had to miss the gig because of it. He requested that Mark think of a name for it if it turned out to be a girl, and Nick if it was a boy. He said he was serious and the name would actually be used, but Mark cruelly came up with ‘Atticus’, which he had heard on some TV program the night before. Neil made up a snatch of a song “Attaboy Addicus”. Nick asked what the surname would be (I forget) and came up with the very boring but much kinder suggestion, ‘Emily’.

Then some guy answered Neil’s earlier question to the audience about when the back balcony had got walled up by saying that when Neil played solo there in such-and-such a year it was still open, and after that gig he and his band had gone home and learned to play ‘Private Universe’. This, of course, was a cue for Neil to invite him and his friends to come up on stage and play the song, so they guy got up but the other two members took a while to materialise. So in the meantime some other enthusiastic bloke got up as well. I toyed with the idea of doing likewise but two things stopped me: (a) I don’t really like ‘Private Universe’ and (b) I wasn’t sure that I could succesfully climb up on to the stage. Of course I regretted it afterwards.

Eventually the other two guys materialised and with the help of the real band they played and sang the song. But for me the highlight was the young girl who clambered up unnoticed by Neil and proceeded to play along on Don’s euphonium! Audience participation is commonplace at Crowded House shows but I bet this was a first!

They finished the first encore with ‘Weather With You’, again suffering from sheer lack of Tim, but benefiting from Don playing enthusiastically on his little toy piano held up to the microphone and rather effective for it. This is yet another perfect singalong song, but as I’ve noticed before, there are two versions of the chorus, both of which resolve differently. Generally the audience doesn’t know which version is happening at any one time, and the thing collapses each time the resolution is reached and half the people sing a different thing from the other half. However Neil made much of the fact that, for the first time ever, we actually managed to get it right! That’s a hometown audience for you! He got us to run through it again both ways just to make sure.

THE SECOND ENCORE

Neil began by playing a lengthy drum solo while Matt wandered over to the keyboards and started making sounds. Neil attempted to get a rendition of Paul Hester’s ‘This Is Massive’ going but it didn’t really work out. Apart from this musical allusion, I don’t think Neil mentioned Paul at all, even though he was a Melbourne man and it would have seemed very natural to talk about him here. Neil regularly paid tribute to Paul frequently on the earlier tours of the reformed version of the band, but tonight he didn’t and afterwards I was absolutely amazed to realise that I had gone through the whole concert barely consciously thinking of him at all! I guess that’s a good thing in that it means that Matt is doing a great job on drums, but I almost felt guilty when it dawned on me.

Then it was ‘Fingers Of Love’ which Marjorie absolutely hates. I don’t mind it too much but Marjie’s detestation always rubs off on me a little so that I can’t really enjoy it.

Then they sang a live favourite, their version of Nick’s brother Mark’s ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’. An audience sing-along classic if ever there was one. We were happy that Neil gave Don a verse to sing, and he sounded truly magnificent. Only made me more cross that he didn’t get to sing any of his own songs!

Neil was clearly wanting the night to go on for ever and said that he couldn’t think of a way to end it so he gave Matt a drum solo. Parts of it seemed to me to be modeled along the lines of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Moby Dick’ so I was wishing the band to come in with that riff, but they had worked another Zep riff into ‘Chocolate Cake’ earlier so perhaps they didn’t want to overdo it!

Nick treated us to a rendition of ‘Hector The Safety Cat’ which must be some old Aussie public information film. I don’t think Neil had heard that one before.

Then they finished the night with ‘Better Be Home Soon’ – always a good way to end it! Throughout the evening the band seemed genuinely moved by the reception they got, and Neil specifically said that he didn’t want it to end. The show had lasted almost three hours and after a wildly received bow or two from the entire ensemble, Nick concluded it by warmly thanking his hometown of Melbourne.

– DC Cardwell 2008
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SET LIST (compiled from some other versions posted on the web – may not be entirely accurate but thanks to the kind anons from whom I pinched it)

1. Locked Out
2. World Where You Live
3. Isolation
4. Turn It Round
5. Pineapple Head/The End
6. Amsterdam
7. Don’t Stop Now
8. People Are Like Suns
9. Chocolate Cake
10. Not The Girl You Think You Are
11. Heaven That I’m Making
12. Lucky/Lola
13. Fall At Your Feet
14. Whispers And Moans
15. Love You Til The Day I Die
16. When You Come

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17. It’s Only Natural
18. Cars Collide
19. Private Universe
20. Distant Sun
21. Weather With You
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22. Neil Drum Jam/This Is Massive
23. Fingers Of Love
24. Throw Your Arms Around Me
25. Matt Drum Solo
26. Better Be Home Soon

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*Our son Samuel had mentioned to me the review in The Age but I couldn’t find it, and after I’d thumbed through the paper for some time Marjorie revealed that she’d used a few pages to wrap the Christmas Cake as it baked in the oven. She was kind enough to save the relevant article after the cake came out, and now I know that newsprint can survive such ordeals unscathed. I’ve heard of ‘half-baked’ reviews before, but I have the ‘completely-baked’ one in front of me as I type. It looks just fine.

 

Crowded House at the Forum, Melbourne, 2nd Dec 2008

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