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7 Worlds Collide (Neil Finn & Friends) - Dingwalls, Camden on 11 August 2009

[This account needs severe trimming so I recommend light skimming....and you might read it whilst playing the playlist suggested at the end.....]

Tomorrow morning, Neil Finn is due to appear on BBC Breakfast, but this morning, I watched through bleary eyes as an astronomer appeared on the programme to tell us about the wonderful opportunity tonight to watch the Perseids meteor shower, which occurs in August when the Earth passes through debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet, which results in a spectacular meteor shower known as the Perseids.  The peak would occur tonight, enabling us to see up to 80 to 100 meteors per hour, and the best time to view was….

She had held my interest until she explained that the peak time for viewing the falling stars was precisely when I would be in a small concert seeing Neil Finn and parts of the Radiohead and Wilco machines, playing as Seven Worlds Collide, which, although it is really a temporary project on its second outing rather than a band, is releasing a double CD on 31 August, with proceeds going to Oxfam.

The original 7 Worlds Collide project centred around a live album released in 2001 following five shows featuring Neil Finn “and friends” in New Zealand, which also resulted in a DVD recorded live at the St James in Auckland.  I believe it is on that DVD that Neil is heard to comment on the merits of starting a band and planning to break it up immediately before anything can go wrong.  I doubt there was any intention to join in the current rage for reforming and get the “band” together again, but in late 2008, much of the same line-up gathered in Auckland to record the album The Sun Came Out, a double CD released on 31 August, proceeds of which will benefit Oxfam.  Contributors include Johnny Marr (ex-The Smiths, The Cribs) and Radiohead’s Phil Selway (drummer/percussionist) and Ed O’Brien (guitar), the three of whom were involved with the original project, now joined by excellent Kiwi singer/songwriters Bic Runga, Don McGlashan and Liam Finn (Neil’s son), members of Wilco, and K T Tunstall.  They played three gigs in Auckland in January, and now five of them would play a gig in an intimate venue in London.

My back and I no longer enjoy standing for hours in cramped clubs where the gigs start and finish late so I must leave early for my last train, but seeing Neil Finn & Co was unmissable.  Thankfully, I was off work so did not turn up on a steamy hot evening in my usual suit lugging a briefcase, or I might have perished.  Instead, less encumbered, I made my way up Camden High Street past all the tattoo parlours, imitation Doc Marten outlets, and blackened stores that all, for some reason, have huge three-dimensional models bursting out above their shop fronts: airplanes (over a shop that has nothing to do with aviation), boots, serpents, parts of people.  It reminds me of those Phoebe Buffay creations in the last series of Friends where she had some sort of grotesque battered mannequin bursting out of a “painting” that she tried to force upon her secretly disgusted friends.  That’s Camden High Street.

But then you cross the lovely lock to a classier stone building converted to restaurants and clubs, and there I found my friends queuing amongst 100 others, although almost 500 would cram into the tiny furnace inside. It was to be, ahem, a crowded house.

We were annoyed to be kept waiting outside until 8pm when the tickets said 7pm and other sources said doors at 7.30pm, but we later realized they did us a favour as there was no air inside.  No windows, no fans, and certainly no air conditioning on a very hot evening, though at least there is no longer cigarette smoke.  We did discuss the best way to catch those who fainted, particularly as some skipped dinner to get a good spot, but for now we guarded our tiny bit of space in the small bit of space in front of the compact stage and tried to acclimatise to the heat.  This proximity to the performers reminded me of when Tim and Neil Finn played in the basement of the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore (RIP), but that was roomier and had air that you could breathe and stuff.

Signs said the band were due on at 8.30pm, but there was no sign of any life until some guitar techs began to tune instruments and test mikes at almost 9pm.  Signs also said “no photos”, but as everyone eventually went mad with flashes and recording things on their mobiles, I felt stupid being the sole goody two shoes so  I eventually joined in, but in a bid to be unobtrusive, kept the flash off and the camera down (in other words, my pictures are blurred rubbish).

Meanwhile, the delay caused a smidgen of irritation amongst the hot, hungry and weak crowd who had already progressed from mere “glistening’ into the major horse sweat category to the point where wet clothes were trendy and even the prim of us considered removing blouses (our brains had been fried, too).  We worried that a late start would cause us to miss the end as few of us are rich enough to live in town, particularly as Neil often ran late, but I hoped the scheduled early BBC appearance might encourage a timely finish.  Someone wondered how much patience we would have in these conditions for a lot of unknown material, and there was general agreement that this would have to be worth it. 

Of course, it was.  A still youthful Neil wandered onto the stage in a dark pin-striped shirt with the long sleeves rolled up, his hair looking quite shaggy these days.  Standing a few feet in front of us, he picked up a guitar as the wet crowd roared with delight, and he was joined by Ed O’Brien (Radiohead) on electric guitar, who stood to Neil’s right, and John Stirratt (Wilco’s bassist), who stood in the shadows in the back of the small stage over Neil’s left shoulder.  Behind Neil was Glenn Kotche, Wilco’s drummer, seated at a full drum set, and to Glenn’s right was a smaller collection of snares, cymbals and other gadgets, where Radiohead’s drummer Phil Selway took his place.

The name of the project came from the line “Seven worlds will collide / Whenever I am by your side” from Crowded House's single Distant Sun.  So how fitting that they launched straight into that song, and it was a marvellously effective, punchy entrance, which had the crowd that was lagging moments ago bursting with a new happy energy. This stronger, rockier version than the soft single of old was lifted higher with pounding percussion (hey, two outstanding drummers on stage are going to make a significant difference). The song naturally had even more meaning on the night of the Perseids meteor shower, which was no doubt on everyone’s mind when Neil sang “dust from a distant sun / will shower over everyone”  (Please—astronomers need not write in to challenge my facts, nor should anyone ever take me too seriously. It’s been a long, hot night).

At the end Neil ad libbed a bit, singing “You’re the same, just like everybody else”, and spent a fair amount of the song beaming.  There was certainly a feeling throughout the evening of camaraderie and enjoyment on both sides of the fourth wall.   The players seemed as delighted by the evening as we were.   The song finished to huge cheers from us and huge smiles from them.  John whispered something to Neil and returned to the back of the stage as Neil launched into his famous convivial personality and celebrated stage presence, saying that it was a “huge delight, pleasure and privilege to be on stage with these gentlemen here.”  They certainly all seemed to convey that respectful joy throughout the performance.

Neil said they would give the songs on the new album a good old run, and the next song was dedicated to their dear friends Johnny Marr and Jeff Tweedy, who couldn’t be with them tonight.   They performed Two Blue, a song written by the two aforementioned absent friends, and Johnny and Neil sing together on the album version, which can be sampled on the 7 Worlds Collide MySpace page.  Listening to that before the concert, I was a bit put off by the syrupy strings and thought I’d prefer a cleaner vocal to the sleepy harmonies throughout, but it’s fun, catchy pop. Live, I got that cleaner vocal, with Neil’s voice taking charge and John providing backing vocals, and it was delightful.  What I could make out of the lyrics (which I think were printed out at Neil’s feet) were a bit dark for a pop song, but I seem to recall Neil once saying that he liked to mix dark lyrics with a bright tune.  (Bap Kennedy’s Unforgiven is a vague nod in that direction, but perhaps it’s just a celebration of escape, as is the frothier pop song by the Mavericks Dance the Night Away.)  Snippets I heard were “Honesty is a wasted thing,” “Your life is hell…you’re feeling around in the dark” and “All you ever had is gone tomorrow” (it’s as though Morrissey was still part of the partnership), yet there was a radio-friendly style to it; you could see a band like The Feeling wanting to cover it.  Radio-friendly is a good thing for a charity album in particular.

At one point, Neil turned around to drummer Glenn, who I couldn’t see for much of the gig because there was someone in the way, blocking my vision, but that someone was Neil Finn, so I was okay with that.  But the random moments when I caught sight of Glenn pushed my face immediately into a huge smile.  This man is amazing.  He just seems so happy.  He was constantly beaming while flailing his arms around madly in a deceptively organized manner, targeting the cymbals and drums in a way that made it seem like pure luck that he hit them, as he can’t have seen them because he was constantly head-banging with such gusto that he was generally just a blur.  He was the human Animal, the drummer from the Muppets.  Animal was based on Keith Moon, but whereas Moon had an unnerving maniacal grin that left you uneasy about what he was going to do next and whether you should grab a fire extinguisher, Glenn’s grin was pure gentle pleasure bursting through what seemed like head-banging chaos.  When we were finding it tricky to stay upright in a steamy, close, airless room, I have no idea how that man carried on with overwhelming energy beneath hot lights.  After the gig, he seemed to be the object of discussion by many and had clearly made a distinct impression on some women. I just wish I could have filmed him so that I could watch him whenever I was feeling down, as he always made me smile, though I might need to take motion sickness tablets first. (Although, from what I could see, Glenn was using straightforward instruments during this gig, I highly recommend even a quick visit to his website to dip into a short film there showing his truly eclectic percussive style, how he can derive and deliver an amazing composition on his own, redefining the old image of a one-man band....and crickets.  Even if you think you're not bothered about drums, have a quick look at least.)

The audience hooted and clapped when the song finished, and Neil and Glenn flashed smiles that seemed to be pleased that it was all getting such a good reception.  The great thing about this, Neil said, was that “no matter what happens, we can all go back to our day jobs”.   They’re all good day jobs, he said, and this was just “official musical promiscuity.”

For some reason that led him to talking about his wife, Sharon, she of the Sharondeliers, who co-wrote a song with Neil on this album and even sings with him.  I look forward to hearing that (and I always admired the apparent strength and impressive duration of their marriage), but for tonight, we had to hear a substitute.  “When you hear my voice lift to an impossible register,” Neil said, “it’s her I’m trying to evoke.”  Always the songwriter, he immediately thought of a rhyme and added “…for you folk”, to applause.

The band began Little By Little after Phil left his drums and sat to Neil’s left at a keyboard of a size you’d think you could pick up at Argos (if Argos sold Clavia Nord synths).  Neil indeed sang in a high register through most of the song, which was a catchy, bright tune.  With two rhythm sections on the stage, I sometimes could only hear snippets of the lyrics during the evening, which for this tune included “On this occasion, I think you could be right” and “Don’t keep me waiting”.  The backing vocals offered a lot of “ooo”s, and the song moved seamlessly from being a pretty little number to something rockier that had the floor thumping.  Ed played with his eyes closed and John sang backing vocals expressively as though he were deep in conversation, with his eyebrows positively animated.  Most of the time, they formed an upside down V on his face (or would have done if he sported an Oasis-style monobrow).  John really grew on me; his constant backing vocals always blended in unobtrusively, and he always performed as though he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else in the world.

So the two Wilco performers had already won me over.  I only have two Wilco albums (1999’s Summerteeth  and 2004’s A Ghost is Born), but mainly am fond of them because they were a link with my father. I grew up under Daddy’s influence liking Woody Guthrie and adoring every minute of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant album, so when Billy Bragg and Wilco put many lost Woody Guthrie songs to music, it was an ideal gift for my father, who was consequently wowed by Wilco, whereas I was a bigger Bragg fan.  Daddy’s the reason I explored some of their work (I scribbled a note after playing Summerteeth, “Scary violent songwriter”—that’s Jeff Tweedy though I hear some was based on literature), but Glenn and John are the reason I’ll get their new album.

Meanwhile, Neil finally joined the rest of us in displaying some, well, condensation on his head.  But what puzzled me was that he was only damp from the neck up.  He never seemed to display underarm stains.  I think he must have been wearing dress shields.  Or if his secret’s a super deodorant, someone should bottle that…..

As the audience roared in appreciation after the song, Neil turned to every member of the band and congratulated them and uttered something along the lines of ‘good one, mate’ with a smile.  I loved how this was all new to them, as well.  I know they played gigs in New Zealand in the New Year, but this was the first time with this particular line-up and playing to a British (-ish) audience. So far, it was working well.

Phil returned to his percussion palace, but only to grab a chair and bring it towards us.  Neil officially welcomed him to the front of the stage, “making his UK debut.”  And in case we got worried when he disappeared from view, Neil pointed to the Argos keyboard and said he would be just there, “just so you know”.  Phil sat down with an acoustic guitar and praised the “sitting down time,” then looked at the pathetic sweaty standing mass in front of him and said, “why don’t you join me?”  I’m sure we wished we could.

As Phil started plucking the strings of his guitar, I saw that Neil was also playing an acoustic guitar rather than the keyboards beside him.  The two played an introduction that initially reminded me of the Hunters and Collectors much covered song (including by Finns; it was written by Mark Seymour, brother of Crowded House’s Nick) Throw Your Arms Around Me.  Rather than some subtle sign that it was time to add vocals,  Phil just asked Neil if he were ready, and Neil replied with exaggerated gusto “oh, yeah!”  They performed The Ties That Bind Us, which is another sample on the MySpace site.  Phil wrote the song and provided lead vocals, and it’s dreamy, but I’m not a fan of that sort of harmony.  Lovely though it was, it just made me think too much of hippy New Age or ‘60s psychedelic music.  It’s like an allergy I have to a perfectly tasty food; I call it ‘Alan Parsons syndrome’ and immediately lose enthusiasm when I hear such harmonies that surely don’t deserve these feelings. Everyone normal thought it was lovely and I’m sure it will grow on me.

I was puzzled at one point when I craned my neck to see the seated Neil singing his part and he wasn’t, and I couldn’t see anyone else singing along with Phil, so I wondered whether he used a backing track, which I absolutely can’t imagine when there were so many talented singers and real musicians around, or if he’d used one of those immediate record/playback devices like K T Tunstall used on her first appearance on Later….with Jools so you are accompanying yourself with something the audience just saw you record.  But I imagine it was just that a very strong echo effect was added to his vocals, and he has such a sweet voice that carries, and Neil did join in at times.

Ed stood just off the stage watching, and Glenn watched until it was time to tap the high-hat and other cymbals with mallets.  The generally enchanting, albeit with a hippy feel, song ended, the less-philistine-than-me audience roared in appreciation, and Neil patted Phil on the back.  “That was glorious” Neil said, as everyone returned to their original places on stage.  The sound system was then affected by that quiet Morse code effect that is given off by mobile phone interference, when people keep their phones on silent rather than switching them to Flight Mode.  Rather than storming off or throwing a tantrum as some artists have, Neil smiled and said “I think there’s a few offers coming in, Phil, straight away!”

Neil started another introduction to a song by saying “This goes out to someone…” but, upon closer inspection of the set list on the floor, stopped himself and said, “No—he’s right here.  It’s Ed!”  Ed smiled warmly and, as he did persistently, rushed to pay tribute to someone else.  “And Liam.  Liam played a big part”.  I think he also might have referred to someone called Pat.  They began to play Learn to Crawl, which was written by Ed, Johnny Marr and the aforementioned Finns.  Ed faced Neil, who had his eyes closed and sang in a low and calm voice, and Ed joined in with quiet, lovely backing vocals.  Both played gentle, twinkling guitar parts and Glenn later added neat percussion.  Phil, who was coping miraculously in the heat in a long sleeved black shirt and tie over black jeans, kept a careful eye on Glenn to ensure they were together.  It must be so much more difficult drumming if you are not the only one.  The tune’s catchy refrain seemed to be something like “It’s a long way to starting your day” then “It’s a dull ache in your stomach, your brain” but I’m convinced that the middle of both those lines was actually something else.  The song sounded like a soft but atmospheric very late Crowded House or early Neil solo song, and it was a marvellous. This song can also be sampled on the MySpace site.

Incidentally, this is not the sort of comment I would normally wish to make but that Ed O’Brien is a striking gentleman.  I’m sure that comes as no surprise to anyone else, but his aesthetic qualities don’t shine through photographs and broadcasts, perhaps because he used to have some of that awful facial fur. Standing in person, tall, dark and slim and full of ease, humour and humility, he was impressive.  I never thought of Neil as small but, standing beside Ed, he looked like he would need Ed to catch his balloon if it started to drift away.  [I’ve since learned that Ed is 6’5”.]  But Ed’s wife needn’t worry that I was sitting there drooling over him.  I was too dehydrated to drool.  And that certainly wasn’t my focus of the evening, just a passing comment.

When the deceptively subdued Learn to Crawl  finished, it gained significant cheers from the appreciative audience, and Ed grinned at the reception.  He changed electric guitars while Neil stuck with his acoustic and said that now he could get on with the introduction that he’d erroneously begun before.  The next song, he said, would be directed to singer/songwriter Don McGlashan [founder of The Mutton Birds] in New Zealand.  The mention of his name earned warm applause, which Neil cheekily addressed with “he has lots of family here tonight.”  Neil said he believed that Don had written the next song, Girl, Make Your Own Mind Up, with his daughter Pearl in mind and probably wanted to call it Pearl, Make Your Own Mind Up, but she would have been too embarrassed.  Neil said he might just sing “Pearl” when performing it tonight.

Ed provided a big hovering note on his guitar as Neil strummed along, and Neil’s voice was outstanding, although sometimes lost amidst all the guitar as the song progressed.  I look forward to hearing the album version with McGlashan on vocals, but I regret the fact that I don’t have a recording of this and other versions performed tonight with Neil at the vocal helm.  As Neil progressed through this tune, Glenn was whipping his sticks up into a high frenzy, flailing them over his beaming, battering head and bashing out an imposing rhythm.  John provided his faithful, fluently expressive backing vocals and bass, and Ed carefully watched Neil as they built up the sound near the end. The wonderful song was packed with fatherly advice and comforting words, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon, a Neil Diamond song that was covered by Urge Overkill on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack—but really that’s because of the title and not the sound or the content (a bit more Chris Rea Fool if You Think It’s Over ).

Following the now typical big cheers despite the sweltering heat and lack of familiar tunes, Neil confirmed to Ed that they’d done Don proud, but perhaps not Pearl.  There was then more mobile phone interference with the sound system, and Neil—still in good humour, particularly considering how irritating that was—said “There’s that f***ing mobile phone interference again!”  Someone had practically suggested as we entered this furnace that we place bets on how often Neil would curse, but this is really the only time I remember him doing so, and with good reason.  He quickly turned it into something light-hearted, continuing with the theme of it being offers coming in, this time for Pearl (he had misheard an audience member’s clever suggestion that it was Pearl herself ringing…..).  Neil said of Pearl that “she’s a lovely girl; she deserves some offers”, and froze when he realized what he had said.  Ed piped in with a chivalrous, “Now hold it right there!”  Neil quickly claimed that he was speaking on behalf of his younger son Elroy, who was only 19, so it was okay. 

As he introduced the next song, more mobile phone interference came through, and although other artists might have stormed off at this stage, Neil just quipped that they’d not even started yet and already offers were coming in!  He spoke of how they threw out the first version of the next song and remixed it, and when he made some humble remark that made the audience say, “aawww”, he urged them not to feel sorry for him as “I’m not going to become a plumber any time soon.”

They next performed the wonderfully titled All Comedians Suffer.  Glenn began by beating out a jaw-dropping rhythm and the rest began a bit like the Finn Brothers’ All God’s Children.  I liked it but felt it was a bit too heavy on guitars, and they drowned out Neil’s vocals.  The verses seemed a bit robotic but the refrain was catchy.  There was a sudden tempo change near the end and Ed launched into an electric guitar solo, but unlike the occasional ego trip such things can be, Ed’s solo was performed with his back to us and it was suitably short.  In fact, the whole set was quite tight; Neil often in the past has let songs go on and on, and I must admit that as much as I have loved whichever band I’ve been watching on stage over the years, I have occasionally wished for more lyric filled quality and less meandering quantity.  But there were no wastes of time tonight or self-indulgent solos; everything was thriftily managed and beautifully spent.

Neil shouted inaudible lyrics (or possibly ad libs) as the wall of sound built up higher, and I finally caught sight of Glenn who looked, as I had fully expected, as though he had just emerged from a shower.  No one could play so truly like Animal in this sauna and look less than drenched.  But he was still smiling.

The audience, which is always more fond of big electric guitar contributions than I am, cheered excitedly at the end of that number, and we were relieved of the (mostly blue, dim) lights for an instant as we were bathed in darkness (or maybe I just blacked out?), which sadly is not as cool as being bathed in water.  Some of us looked hopefully up at the sprinkler system above us, almost willing them to douse us, but no such luck, although I suppose people would be electrocuted and that might be a dampener on the evening.  Fortunately, there was some good stuff going on stage to keep us occupied.

As John beamed at the back of the stage, Neil asked Phil if he had another tune for us, insisting “I think you have!”  Phil appeared from wherever he had been and sat centre stage with an acoustic guitar, with Neil returning to the keyboard.  Phil said it was quite fun up front and he and Neil kidded that there was no going back now that Phil was getting a taste for it.  It was a joke but I think most people present would encourage him to write more and provide lead vocals more often in the future, as he’s a wasted talent just tucked at the back with drums, no matter how amazing a drummer he is.  [Phil doesn’t seem to have been involved in as many projects as some of his Radiohead colleagues, although he did work on the McCusker/Woomble/Drever album Before the Ruin, which is funny as he not only reminded me a bit of John McCusker, but that John played at the last gig I saw.  Phil also appeared with Jarvis Cocker as a band member in a Harry Potter film (Goblet of Fire) and played his (animated) self in an old South Park episode, plus does amazing work with the Samaritans. So an all around interesting and surprisingly outgoing person.)

 More mobile phone interference right when a soft song was about to begin had much of the audience grumbling “Turn it off!” but Neil just referred to Phil having offers pouring in now, and they did not let it disturb them.   Phil sang a heavenly song he had written, The Witching Hour, in a wispy, beautifully delicate voice, with Neil accompanying him on electric piano.  The tune was easy to love, and snippets of the lyrics were “Take me, take me out into the night”,  “hold me, hold me, I am like a child” and “those I love carry me home, carry me home”.  Neil joined in on some truly haunting harmonies at the end, and the song was certainly one of the many highlights of the evening.  Glenn and John’s constant smiles had competition from the audience who had fallen under Phil’s bewitching spell.

Ed and John returned to the stage, flashing their teeth at their colleague’s performance, and Neil gave us the welcome news that Phil was working on a record with someone, and I think Neil said that Glenn and Sebastian Steinberg and others would also be working on it, prompting Phil to turn to us and say that we were also welcome.  Neil then referred to his planned appearance with Phil on the BBC Breakfast programme the next morning, saying Phil would regale all of Great Britain with endless anecdotes, but that they had Ed feeling guilty for not coming along even though he lived in London.  Ed claimed to have just offered to come, but Neil argued that he only did so after being “really sniffy about it.”  Ed explained he’d been rehearsing all day for Radiohead. [Does that mean that Phil was not?  A BBC Breakfast presenter the next day got excited when Neil mentioned that Phil would be rehearsing with Radiohead, as the presenter took that to mean that an album was imminent, but Phil pointed out that the band would be playing the Leeds and Reading festivals and said they were preparing for that.]

At last, the lovely John came to the front of the stage, trading his electric bass guitar for an acoustic guitar.  “They’re letting me do one,” he explained, and turned to thank Neil in a way that the latter interpreted as sarcasm, as he jumped in with “Let’s make sure the phones are still on for this one!”  

Ed and his electric guitar lurked in the back for this one, and Phil retired to the tambourine, swaying on the spot with his eyes firmly closed.  John sang in a pleasant voice that made me think of respectable pop of yesteryear, though I couldn’t quite place what he reminded me of other than frothier early Beatles, until for some reason the Monkees came to mind.  I don’t mean he was zany; they just had a sound, and there were some good musicians in that band performing the work of some famous songwriters.  Really it was a bit more like modern folk rock, which I enjoy. Some parts even sounded a bit reminiscent of Crowded House, and Neil contributed a lovely piano solo during which John unsurprisingly stood smiling to himself.   The lyrics I caught were something like, “If you ever wanted me to know, it’s different now…..If somebody would just let it go, It’d be over and done.”  When his song Over and Done was, he deserved the resultant big cheers, and his Radiohead band mate patted him on the back as they switched places on the stage.

Neil then chatted about how, at New Year’s Eve, they were at Mark Brown’s place at the top of the ridge.  He said that as though we all knew the area well and whom he meant; I’m going to assume he means the Kiwi golfer as he lives in the Hamilton area of New Zealand and quite possibly on a ridge.  Neil said that lots of the “7 Worlds kids” disappeared together for a while that night (as kids do at adult parties) and worried all their parents, though he quickly reassured Ed that his young children had played no part in those dodgy moments. He spoke of Jeff Tweedy staring out with a glazed look in his eyes then as he listened to My Sweet Lord.  When he asked Glenn to back him up, he found Glenn hadn’t been listening (probably too busy smiling). 

Neil later said he wasn’t quite sure why he told that tale in the intro, but now that I have listened to the Wilco version of the song on Spotify, I suspect Neil was being mischievous.  The song was clearly strongly influenced by George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, the principal and most blatant nod being just after the four minute mark when a slide guitar plays a few notes that are straight out of Harrison’s track.  Of course, Harrison lost a plagiarism suit about My Sweet Lord, which sounded too much like the track He's So Fine that had been recorded by The Chiffons, so that makes it an interesting, complicated tribute. Perhaps it’s a web of irony.

Anyway, Neil had said they would think of Jeff when they performed his song, which Tweedy sings on the 7 Collides album (with a different version appearing on the Wilco album), You Never Know.   Neil strummed on his acoustic guitar and sang as though he were trying to mimic Jeff Tweedy’s voice, with a much funkier vocal delivery than usual, which suited this number but I wouldn’t want Neil to take it up full time.   Neil smiled as he sang, and naturally so did dear John as he supplied many “oooo”s with his glorious expressive puppy face (sorry, I guess men don’t like that sort of compliment).  The refrain seemed to repeat “I don’t care anymore” so often that it struck me as the musical equivalent of “Am I bovvered?” (Bear in mind my brain had been fried by the stifling heat).  Near the end, Neil turned and “rocked out”, as much as one does on acoustic guitar, with John and Glenn.  Again, they kept that to a decent length, along with a brief electric solo from Ed, who had his tongue jutting from the side of his mouth like Charlie Brown focusing on some trying activity in a holiday special.  Ed then bent over his guitar from his waist so that his top half was parallel with the floor.  I’ve seen many bendy guitarists but had not before seen a guitarist imitating an upside down L, and it added more flavour to the evening.

As everyone applauded, Neil switched to electric guitar and warned that they needed to get prepared for this one, during which they had to send out thoughts to his son Liam, whom the audience cheered. Neil said Ed and Liam had set up the song with Johnny, and that Neil had just breezed in glamorously to take part on the second day.  Because the song Learn to Crawl is a collaboration of those four, I incorrectly thought this might be what they played, but I’ve since heard part of that quiet song on MySpace and that definitely wasn’t what we heard.  This song was full of big drums, scraping electric guitars and all sorts of discordant booming noise that actually put me in mind of Spinal Tap at one point. I can’t yet place what else it made me think of, perhaps a bit of the Beatles’ Drive My Car in a vague way. Ed, John and Neil did a lot of “ooo-ooo-ooo”-ing, Glenn smiled and head-banged for America, and it took an age before we heard any lyrics (from Neil and John), but they were incomprehensible, drowned out by the in-your-face guitars.  Neil and Ed both had guitar solos, and the music rose to a pounding volume, with some shrieking unheard vocals and whining guitars that played out the song to welcome cheers.  The performance went down well. I’m clearly fonder of the gentler tunes, but this was certainly packed with energy.  No wonder they needed to gear themselves up for it.

I think this song was Bodhisattva Blues, another Ed/Liam collaboration on the as yet unheard album. The title would lead me to expect either something either bluesy or peaceful that related to Buddha and enlightenment, but Finns do like to make you expect the unexpected, although I would expect Ed and Liam to offer a track with colossal guitars.  I will, of course, eat my words if that song turns out to be a ballad.  [I’ve since seen a review by BBC 6Music where I think they were suggesting this was Red Wine Bottle, which I don’t know, but I’ve also since learned that the actual set list said “Tibetan Blues”, which would be a natural nickname for this song.]

Neil returned to acoustic guitar and repeated how wonderful it was to be there for this kind of special night, where he got to play with—and he pointed out each of the musicians by way of introduction, referring to Phil Selway as “Renaissance Man”. 

Neil said a conversation with Ed over a glass of wine had sparked the whole thing off.  But now, he said, they were done with their 7 Worlds Collide repertoire.  Given that the album is a generous 24 songs, that isn’t strictly true, but he said they wanted to do some songs from the first 7 Worlds project.  As the band played the introduction to Crowded House’s Private Universe with a big contribution from John, Neil did the usual niceties about how fantastic we had been, and the audience naturally reciprocated and meant it.  Much of the audience sang along softly with Neil, but we could always still hear him.  Phil initially stood waiting with his drumsticks poised as he carefully watched Glenn for some cue, and Ed frequently disappeared on the floor to fiddle with his pedals.  I thought how easy it was to warm to all these lovely personalities, and not just because of the unbearable heat.  I also reflected on the pre-gig worries that we might grow impatient listening to so many unknown songs, but we had happily lapped them up over the past hour.  Of course, live music is always easier to enjoy, but I look forward to the album and hope it does well, particularly as it’s for charity.  The end of this song spun into a tremendous fiery pyre of pounding drums that were utterly breathtaking. Glenn morphed majorly into Animal and Phil ended up playing Glenn’s cymbals as well as his own.  I seem to recall Crowded House performing this at Wembley Arena years ago with a line of Maori drummers, and the skill of these two drummers might even have topped that experience. As it ended, Phil had his eyes shut for a while, Ed went perpendicular for such a worryingly long time that I considered leaping onto the stage to ensure he had not passed out from the heat, and Neil just smiled, nearly twirling around as the tune drew to a close.  The audience raved about them, they applauded as well, and they rushed off the stage about an hour after they joined us.

Although the trend these days seems to be to leave the stage for only a moment, it felt like these guys kept us waiting an age, but they probably had to shower.  Actually, it was only a couple minutes, and meanwhile we were all gross and wet but happy, still finding the energy to stomp our swollen feet with such force that we could not be ignored.  Neil returned and toasted us with a wine glass.  He said that Luke Bullen, K T Tunstall’s drummer and husband, was in the audience, and he asked him to join them, but when he got no response, he joked that Luke must have passed out.  He kept the offer open and said Luke could join on the second verse if he had a change of heart; it would be like making a glamorous entrance.

The band began playing that thrilling familiar introduction to the magnificent Split Enz hit I Got You, which forever reminds me of the infant MTV in the States when they thankfully played that video frequently (which thrilled the teenage me at the time; I have since learned they had very few videos to cover the channel 24 hours a day).   The audience clapped to the beat and bounced around despite the heat, and Luke did eventually appear on stage and bash away at Phil’s snare and cymbals.  He was wearing a horizontally striped sailor’s shirt and leather jacket and looked like a modern Buddy Holly faux-geek with a twist of early Elvis Costello.  When Neil sang the third verse, he amused us by providing his own echo by singing “no doubt, -out, -out” with a serious face as in the old video, and the muted keyboard bit before that was replaced by grungy guitar, with Neil adding more electric guitar at the end, and they built the music up to a furious crescendo before a big finish.  I shall always love that song, and no doubt much of those present were feeling the same warm fuzziness.  (Scary realisation: that song came out 30 years ago.  Why doesn’t Neil age?  He does wear less make-up now, which I think is a good thing.)

Neil asked Luke, who had clearly had a blast taking part in that gem, to stick around, but Luke stepped off the side of the little stage and just watched.  Neil referred to a rather tender moment when the musicians had all been on their holidays the previous week, where one of their friends had tried to spread his love of the ukulele, so Neil wanted to invite “Garth” up on stage with his ukulele.  I was up for this more than others might be as I know that, in the right hands, a ukulele can sound more like a mandolin than anything to do with George Formby.  (Plus it’s suitable for the tropical heat). I remember seeing Paul McCartney perform at Earl’s Court and, after saying what an excellent ukulele player George Harrison had been, McCartney performed Harrison’s Something on one in tribute, and it worked. 

As I was recalling that moment, the 7 Worlds band started up the same song, but now with a suspiciously dry and fresh looking Garth standing centre stage with a ukulele covered in a busy red pattern that one might find carpeting a 1940s B&B in Blackpool.  Neil asked the sound engineers to turn down his guitar so we could get the full “sonorous beauty of the ukulele” above all else.  Everyone in the audience sang along with this exquisite classic, and though some of the ukulele’s sounds were more discordant than sonorous, it could have been understandable nerves of this person who seemed to be an ordinary Joe in an extraordinary moment, or it could be that the guitar techs had let him down by not tuning his refined instrument.  But everyone was hot and happy.

Garth left us and Neil asked for requests, which he quickly regretted as he said we all sounded like a bunch of mumbled growls to him.  “John Barleycorn, you wanted?”, he joked.  So he said we’d stick to something we could all sing along with. He checked his set list announced that he’d cut the band out of this one earlier but wanted to invite them to join him now, and “seeing as Ed so graciously decided to do the BBC news tomorrow….”—at which Ed looked startled but still happy as he stood just off the stage, to the side---“you can join in any way if you want.”  So with John, Glenn and Neil on the stage and Ed standing just off it but playing his electric guitar, they launched into the original and always magnificent Crowded House hit, Don’t Dream It’s Over.  The audience shouted every word along with Neil, whose perfect voice fortunately could still be heard above us.  His performed a splendid acoustic solo before the audience kicked in with the organ part at the end, singing “la-da-da-da-da” and Neil conducted us a bit before singing over the audience’s melody, “Don’t let them win!  Whoever they are, don’t ever let them win.”  It was sublime.

At the end, when the roars had subsided a bit, Neil rushed through a reference to their day jobs: there was a new Crowded House record on the way (to massive cheers), a Phil Selway record and a Radiohead LP on the way—which had Ed step up to the mike quickly to correct that to the record being “in the pipeline” (given that Thom Yorke has recently said the band has no plans to release another full length album). Neil carried on without skipping a beat: Wilco already had a new album out, he said, and a Liam Finn album was on the way (more cheers). 

He said, with a wry smile, that they’d perform one more song “that none of us here know properly except for me”, so he would rely on us to assist.  The instantly recognisable guitar riff for Crowded House’s Weather With You stirred up the already boiling excitement of the roasting crowd, and even Luke decided he couldn’t just sit and watch this one, and he returned to the stage and joined Glenn on Phil’s drums.  I hadn’t seen Phil for an age but I think he was seated at Glenn’s set now, with Neil was blocking my view of him.  The audience, which had sounded fairly angelic when singing before, now sounded pretty awful singing along, but in our defence, we were incredibly wet and achy (thankfully that somehow didn’t affect the band’s talents).  They added handclaps throughout the song and Ed played a fine solo before Neil stopped strumming on his acoustic guitar in order to conduct us again.  Arms in the air, he called out specific chords for us to relay back impressively—with help from him first demonstrating the correct notes on his guitar—and he thus whipped us into shape, more or particularly less, so our singing improved.  Sadly, this lulled us into a false sense of security, as though we would all be together for a while, when in fact some of our band were planning to leave the stage forever. 

Everyone cheered and the real musicians seemed pleased that they had pulled off such a wonderful and welcome concert with, I believe, little rehearsal, but when they slipped off at 10.35pm, no one really believed that was it, so we let them go without much ceremony.  The house lights comprised the same blue lights that had been on the stage most of the time, but the club added some distant recorded music to hint that we should go, but no one could face the truth.  Eventually, we cottoned on, and our desire to reach fresh air before finally passing out drove us outside, and I can’t recall appreciating fresh air quite so much before.  It was a lovely evening by Camden Lock, and we all spilled out coated in ickiness and smiles.

Sadly, there were no shooting stars in the sky; we had missed the meteor shower.  But the stars on stage were so dazzling, an amazing line-up that somehow worked when pulled together by such an affable talent as Mr Finn, that my night could not have been brighter.

 (Incidentally, although obviously Spotify does not have the tracks from the new album yet—and you should be sure to buy the album on 31 August for all sorts of reasons including helping Oxfam—I have included in a Spotify playlist some songs that were performed this night, a few distant relatives of the project, a few songs that just came to mind for various reasons when I bashed out this overlong epic, with a few extra thrown in.  Annoyingly, that site is currently having some sync problems so half of the tracks and their carefully chosen order keep disappearing, but I'll keep trying to fix it.  Meanwhile, feel free to have a listen at    http://open.spotify.com/user/braintracer/playlist/387zq1tR1xWarPUODZGqvM  (or if you are already in Spotify, try: spotify:user:braintracer:playlist:387zq1tR1xWarPUODZGqvM ) . Registration with Spotify is quick, minimal and simple and it costs nothing to use—you just have to tolerate occasional quick adverts--then opens a world of streamed music to which they are, fortunately, adding all the time, as it contains some massive holes at present.  But it’s free.)

 Many thanks to Lesley for getting the tickets when the Ticketmaster site repeatedly refused to let me check out until the gig sold out, to Patrick for so kindly sacrificing the ticket destined for him so I could go despite my failing to get us all tickets, and to Peter for the notice of the event and everything else.

Copyright © 2009 by TC. All rights reserved.
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at Dingwalls in Camden on 11 August 2009

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