Neil Finn + Joshua James – Hamer Hall, Melbourne (12/03/14)

Joshua James, from Salt Lake City, Utah, opened tonight’s show at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. Appearing in duo form with long time guitarist and backing vocalist Evan Coulombe, the young man’s intense delivery, earnest persona and delicate yet gruff voice were immediately arresting.

Coulombe’s reverb-laden guitar parts created the perfect atmosphere around James’ acoustic guitar and their voices melded perfectly together, filling the space of the big hall yet leaving it sparse enough to not detract from the material. The music could be described as country-folk in the vein of Israel Nash Gripka, Josh Ritter, or Josh T. Pearson, and was very impressive.

Taking their places in the dark and opening with ‘Impressions’, the opening track off new album Dizzy Heights, Neil Finn and band kicked off their set, and it was clear that we were in for a treat. The band, consisting of drummer Alastair Deverick, synth/keys player Andrew Everding, vocalist Lisa Tomlins, guitarist and vocalist Jesse Sheehan, bassist and wife Sharon Finn and Neil alternating between grand piano and guitar, produced an enormous sound, which was at once tight, intricate and loud.

What was immediately apparent was how funky, in a slightly laid back What’s Going On era Marvin Gaye way, the group sounded. Whilst on record ‘Impressions’ has a slightly dreamy quality, with Neil’s vocals floating in a sea of reverb, tonight the song was given a much more immediate reading, pushed along by a mid-tempo groove, splashes of seventh notes from the keys and beautiful gospel style backing vocals from Tomlins and Sheehan.

Obviously it helps to tour with the musicians that actually recorded the album, but this felt like much more of an ensemble effort than what would normally be expected from a backing band. It would not be a stretch to say that this is one of the best live bands of Finn’s solo career; there were no technical guns for hire faithfully reproducing Crowded House parts, each member of this lineup contributed considerably.

Tight without being overly slick, each piece seemed to fit together to make a huge sound without anyone overplaying, and Finn himself seemed confident and in fine voice. The multi-layered nature of the new record when fleshed out onstage was at once intricate and full, whilst leaving space to breathe within these layers.

The two main backing vocalists were a big part of this sound, their voices thickened with reverb and possibly doubled as well, their efforts supporting Finn’s own voice, which was also strengthened with a lovely reverb, and meaning he did not have to strain to hit the high notes that don’t come as easily as they once did. Creative use of vocal delays were also used subtly throughout the show, and guitar pedals featured prominently.

Sharon Finn, who had never seriously played before beginning jamming with her husband a few years ago, proved an instinctual bassist. Her simple basslines were thick and full, not intruding on the melodic guitar lines, but providing a heavy bedrock alongside the drums.

The song selections in the first half of the set seemed tied together musically, all operating to a slightly funky groove one never would have guessed could have had their beginnings in a small town in New Zealand. New songs were mixed in with crowd favourites ‘Fall At Your Feet’ and ‘Distant Sun’, as well as album cuts such as ‘From A Friend’, from Sharon and Neil’s collaborative project, 2012’s Pajama Club, ‘Sinner’ from 1998’s Try Whistling This (“a song I recorded in the last century”, as Finn introduced it), ‘Only Talking Sense’ from 1995’s Finn and ‘Turn and Run’, from Neil’s last solo album, 2001’s One Nil.

‘Turn and Run’ was the most obvious inclusion that had been rearranged for this theme, however Finn seemed to struggle with it’s new tempo, lagging somewhere between it’s original ballad time signature and the more upbeat jam that the band was going for.

Dizzy Heights has been hailed by critics as a creative departure for Neil Finn, and it is quite different from the intricate melodies and soaring choruses that have marked his most famous works. It is an album full of textures and dimensions, dark spaces and orchestral flourishes, one that benefits from repeated listens.

Having discovered a love of groove-based jamming with the Pajama Club, it is interesting to observe an evolution of that process and sound within Finn’s new material, applied, however, with a greater attention to song craft and with much grander arrangements.

It sounds like a record, rather than a band playing together in a room, and it is a testament to Finn and his band that they not only were able to pull off all of the intricacies of the recorded work but in many cases made the songs sound more exciting.

The only point that felt a bit flat was ‘Divebomber’, which saw Finn singing in falsetto along with Everding’s synth while the rest of the band moved to percussion. Unfortunately the synth part alone seemed to lack enough bass to carry the tune, and Finn struggled to hold pitch during the latter part of the song when trying to project his falsetto enough to build towards the piece’s emotional crescendo.

Acknowledging this, Finn reassured the audience “it’s all gonna be ok”, and quickly moved to sure-fire crowd pleaser ‘Message to My Girl’, accompanied only by the Tomlins and Sheehan on backing vocals.

He seemed in a good mood onstage, making jokes (“STOP! Hamer time!”) and chatting to those in the front row. He even indulged a crowd request whilst seated at the piano for late period Split Enz track ‘Strait Old Line’, which he claimed to have not played in sixteen years, a welcome if somewhat wobbly curio.

With thirty-seven years under his belt since his debut with Split Enz, Finn now has a vast repertoire to choose from. However it makes it much more interesting from an audience’s perspective, that he peppers his set with enough favourites to satisfy the fans without simply performing ‘best of’ sets. New songs, such as the incredible ‘Pony Ride’, mingled with classics such as ‘One Step Ahead’, ‘She Will Have Her Way’, a stripped back ‘Don’t Dream it’s Over’, ‘I Got You’, and ‘Private Universe’.

Performing two encores and remaining onstage for over two hours, Finn ended the night with an acoustic guitar in hand and a smile on his face. An impromptu cover of The Beatles’ ‘Rocky Raccoon’ and a version of one his own Split Enz song ‘Better The Devil You Know’ concluded the night.

At this stage of his career, Neil Finn knows his audience loves him and he clearly appreciates that. The new material and new band see the fifty-five year old at his most energised and original since he first went solo in 1998, and it was a joy to witness.

Originally published on The AU Review on 16/03/2014. View original article.

Photographs by Serena Ho. View photo gallery.

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