If you read this at all, feel free to skip straight to the end. Thanks.
Neil Finn, Largo, December 6, 2006: A year-plus of regular Largo attendance has reaped me at least one benefit: an early shot at a table for this surprise show by Neil Finn, one of my longtime favorites. Though it should be clear by now that it doesn't take a whole lot to convince me to jump on a Southwest flight, this was beyond a no-brainer. It's on a par with breathing--pure instinct.
It's been a while since Neil has enjoyed the kind of popularity in the States that puts him in huge venues, and he tends to hit clubs or smaller theaters here. That is, fans still get a relatively intimate experience when they see him. But of course, Largo takes up-close and personal to another level, and the fact that talented friends are likely to drop in cements the gig's must-see factor. Thus, lines for previous Neil shows are legendary, even by Largo's standards, but tonight saw a thinnish crowd. I believe everyone got in, with plenty of room to spare--score one for the fans.
Among the pre-show sights: a spare, uncluttered stage that did not resemble a fire hazard--that is, a customary non-Jon Brion setup. But the presence of the celeste told us not only that Neil was expecting at least one guest tonight but who that guest might be (no stretch of the imagination).
In case you need proof that Neil Finn is Largo royalty, here are two items to consider: Flanagan not only helped Bobb Bruno with guitar tech duties, he also hand-delivered Neil's Guinness to the stage, complete with a napkin. (Jon never gets one!) We also spied the Flight of the Conchords (with dates!) at the door and got our hopes up for an Antipodean extravaganza of a night. Alas, events didn't pan out quite as expected, though there was tons of Southern Hemisphere representation.
The opener was Missy Higgins, a young, lovely Australian singer/songwriter who's apparently quite popular and acclaimed in her native country. Her producer Mitchell Froom played piano on a couple of songs, and she paid tribute to Neil with a story about how she has a recording of herself singing "Better Be Home Soon" when she was a little kid--which probably wasn't that long ago. Even if that didn't make Neil feel old, it certainly put the years in perspective for me.
We had a few theories on what could possibly bring Neil to town, and he answered that question soon enough when he talked about finishing his new album in Los Angeles. And in light of that information, it came as no surprise that the early part of Neil's set featured new songs. They were pretty evenly divided between piano and guitar tunes, with the piano songs inhabiting the more downbeat end of the spectrum. Of the new songs, my favorite was one whose name I didn't catch but that Neil said was written with the Dixie Chicks. For that one, he also asked us to imagine a big psychedelic ending in place of his acoustic treatment.
To no one's surprise, Neil called on Jon Brion to join him for a couple of new songs that Jon hadn't heard before. Jon picked up a big hollow-body Rickenbacker to contribute crisp, clear notes and shades of expression to these unfamiliar tunes. Soon after, Sebastian Steinberg from Soul Coughing and the last version of Neil's touring band rounded out the trio on bass, and not long after that, they picked up a drummer from the audience--a guy named Chris who turned out to be fantastic!
Chris's first trial came from Jon, who mentioned that they used to test out new drummers by making them play "Wipeout." Chris obliged, accompanied by Jon and Sebastian, and he totally owned it. He had pretty much passed the audition by that point, but the next phase came in the form of a Ventures romp while Neil tuned.
Neil sounded a tiny bit apologetic when he said that they actually knew the next song, but it was "Distant Sun," for which he never needs to excuse himself. With Neil's encouragement, Jon unleashed a gorgeous guitar solo that I don't recall in the original.
Jon jumped to the piano and celeste for the next few songs, and on "Sinner," he did this neat tickling thing on the piano keys--I can't really say anything else about it except that it was really cool. "The In Crowd" came during one of Neil's many tuning breaks, when the band asked for requests--and got one from Mitchell Froom. Mitchell's outburst prompted Neil to share a story about hearing Mitchell sing one of Neil's songs back to him. Imagine the chorus from "Don't Dream It's Over" in a flat, clipped tone, if you can; according to Neil, that's how Mitchell heard the song.
Neil explained that they had recorded two versions of "All God's Children," and he started out with the one not commonly heard: the acoustic version. But somewhere in the middle of the tune (coincidentally, when Jon had finished tuning the electric guitar), they kicked it up for the electric version.
This big boost was a nice introduction for Missy and Mitchell's return to the stage for a couple of tunes. Mitchell took the piano, Missy added backing vocals, and even Jon stepped up to the mic for the next two Crowded House standards. I thought Missy's vocals were especially gorgeous on "Fall at Your Feet," and I couldn't help but notice that Jon contributed very subtle low harmonies, a nice contrast to Neil and Missy.
At that point, Chris left the stage (to be replaced by Jon), but not before Neil and everyone in the room showed their appreciation for Chris's great rhythm work. Jon had set the bar earlier when Chris joined them, so it was only natural that we subjected him to the "Wipeout" test as well--he passed. Missy also took a short break while the quartet hit "Pineapple Head," but she returned for "Driving Me Mad" and her own suggestion, "Better Be Home Soon." Mitchell's piano solo on the latter was especially gorgeous, and it made me recall my mixed emotions about "Better Be Home Soon" when it was first released. Though I loved the song, it tested my sensibilities and self-image because it sounded almost--God forbid--country. If only all identity issues were so easily resolved!
The musical chairs proceeded apace, with Mitchell and Missy leaving the stage, Jon taking the electric guitar, and Neil moving to the drum kit. Neil said something about how Largo is the only place where he lasts on drums for a whole song, but despite his harsh assessment of his own skills, he seems to insist on hitting the skins whenever he's at Largo. He too had to undergo the "Wipeout" exam, and I'm afraid to say he was well below the other two drummers, though you can't really begrudge him the effort. He passed muster, however, so we let him advance to the song he intended to play: "One Step Ahead."
Both songs in the encore came from audience requests, and for the final tune, Neil asked all the night's artists to feel free to join him onstage. Only Jon returned to play a shaker during "Throw Your Arms Around Me."
Overall, it was the same Neil I've been listening to for the last (gulp) 20-plus years: charming, generous, laid-back, and playful. Of course, his cool friends don't hurt the case either. Heh. I haven't formed an opinion of the new songs yet; one (maybe "People Are Like Suns") sounded like less of a pop song than you'd associate with Neil, though I know a few of them included those bridges I love so much. This, the third time I've seen Neil at Largo, was as special as ever. I'm just glad he's back.
--Pour le Monde
--People Are Like Suns
--Only Talking Sense
--Silent House [with Jon Brion]
--Nobody Wants To [with Jon Brion]
--Heaven That I'm Making [with Jon Brion and Sebastian Steinberg]
--Wipeout [with Jon Brion, Sebastian Steinberg, and Chris from the audience]
--something by the Ventures [with Jon, Sebastian, and Chris]
--Distant Sun [with Jon, Sebastian, and Chris]
--Sinner [with Jon, Sebastian, and Chris]
--Anytime [with Jon, Sebastian, and Chris]
--The In-Crowd [with Jon, Sebastian, and Chris]
--All God's Children (slow version) [with Jon, Sebastian, and Chris]
--All God's Children (rock version) [with Jon, Sebastian, and Chris]
--Four Seasons in One Day [with Jon, Sebastian, Mitchell, Missy, and Chris]
--Fall at Your Feet [with Jon, Sebastian, Mitchell, Missy, and Chris]
--Wipeout [with Jon, Sebastian, and Mitchell]
--Pineapple Head [with Jon, Sebastian, and Mitchell]
--Driving Me Mad [with Jon, Sebastian, Mitchell, and Missy]
--Better Be Home Soon [with Jon, Sebastian, Mitchell, and Missy]
--Wipeout [Neil version] [with Jon and Sebastian]
--One Step Ahead [with Jon and Sebastian]
--Message to My Girl
--Throw Your Arms Around Me [with Jon]
More Neil Finn at Largo
» i can teach you, but i have to charge (February 20, 2004)
» i've got it bad (August 14, 2009)
» above you and beyond me too (August 16-18, 2009)
I can't imagine that there's any appropriate way to rationalize tragedy and our reaction to it, but remembering former colleague, fine friend, and all-around great guy James Kim amid an intimate Neil Finn show felt right to me, even if nothing else from the news reports clicked. This wonderful man will be sorely missed and dearly remembered.
» i can teach you but i have to charge