The Divine Comedy - Manchester Academy - 3.10.02

Neil Hannon has always swung between the symphony's of Ludwig Van Beethoven and the lo-fi indie ramblings of a thousand forgotten underground heroes. It's a constant battle between his own ego and his self-effacing vulnerability which can't work out whether he should just give into the instant kick of rock & roll rather than slaving away on 3 minute nugget symphony's channelled through a classic pop filter.

Tonight he fly's in a solo outing which enables him to compromise on both counts and with just a 3 piece band to back him with double bass, drums and guitar he holds reign over the old black and white joanna and his unique almost strangulated crooning. It's a far cry from the shambolic Bowie support slot which we endured with stony faces just a couple of months ago and if anything recalls the lo-fi spirit of Hannon's early lo-fi recordings rather than the democratic indie dirge of the bands "Regeneration" album. And with a new found confidence he warms us gently with "National Express", which loses nothing stripped down to basics, "Frog Princess" and "Alfie" before introducing us to new songs "Beautiful Friend", "Idaho" and "Happy Goth". The former inducing the spirit of summer with lush vocal harmonies and lightly strummed acoustics ala Teenage Fanclub and the latter a wry grin towards the teenage goth fraternity.

Despite releasing some of the best pop songs of the past decade Hannon still stands in awe at the prospect of playing with friend and support act Ben Folds. It's a mutual admiration of sorts with both Hannon and Folds out solo for the first time and freeing themselves from the shackles which held them back in their full bands. Folds shuffles nervously to the centre stage while Hannon sits in the wings on a Grand Piano and launches into a version of DC's "Your Daddy's Car" with Fold's American twang sitting seamlessly alongside that of Hannons. But the best is served for last and when they launch into a duo of cover versions, firstly a campfire singalong of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" and then an epic rock version of the Flaming Lips "The Race".

Like a fine wine, Hannon has matured with age and while his new tracks may be a little harsh on the palette, they have a rich underbelly of sumptuous flavours just waiting to be embellished when he heads into the studio. Tonight may be the sound of a man rediscovering himself after a period in the wilderness, but it's not hard to realize the best is still to come.

Alex McCann

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