01 July 2007

Sing like a bird released

Crowded House, The Magic Numbers, Siobhan Donaghy, The Thrills, The Tiny Dancers (Indigo2, London, 28 June 2007)

A corporate rock fest! Where bands swan around in private lounges liberally stocked with designer cocaine blends on silver trays borne on the heads of tuxedo-wearing dwarf butlers. Where megastar guitar gods communicate with the audience solely via Blackberry. Who could possibly enjoy that?

Pull your head in, son. While on the face of it, the title of the 'AOL Summer Cooler at Indigo2' doesn't inspire confidence, in real life the buying power of a major internet corporation can pull in enough genuine authentic star-power to satisfy any demanding rock gig fan. Indigo2 is the boutique music venue located in the former Milennium Dome, with a capacity of 2350, compared with the big-name-pulling O2 Arena in the centre of the Dome, which seats 20,000. Twice a year, AOL pays the pounds to bring quality acts along to present bespoke rock shows to intimate audiences, and records the proceedings for later webcasting. Sure, they encourage as many audience members as possible to wear their rather naff sunhats sporting AOL logos, all the better to focus on during the camera's crowd reaction shots.

But all praise is due to the mighty AOL pounds when they purchase the services of such a talented line-up. The re-formed Crowded House, together again this year for the first time since 1996! The hairily poptastic Magic Numbers! The Thrills, who bottled Bohemia! And two others!

First up, and because of the early billing, only playing to a hundred or so early arrivals, were Yorkshire band The Tiny Dancers. With a mop-haired jumpy frontman, their short set was played to a small but enthusiastic audience. Their best-known single, Hannah We Know, formed the centrepiece of their set – a great chanting knees-up of a song.

Next came The Thrills from Ireland, with a third album out soon. Their melodic guitar pop sound was driven by lead singer Conor Deasy, whose talented lead vocals and popstar good looks brought to mind Orlando Bloom fronting the Waterboys. Highlighting the chiming hook-laden singles from their first two albums, including Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far), One Horse Town, and Whatever Happened to Corey Haim? The latter contains the delightfully nonsensical vocal fill by Deasy: ‘Ooh! Girl I say ooh! Whatever happened [to] my friend, Corey Haim…?’ No-one’s sure why he needed to say ‘ooh!’, but then popstars are a funny bunch.

While the stage was set up for the next act, former Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy performed a brief telecast set of jazzy numbers from her new solo album, Ghosts. Her vocals and general all-round style impressed, particularly her outfit – which seemed to consist largely of a cat’s cradle of black string flung in the general direction of her torso. But it felt a little strange to watch a televised performance of someone singing only a few rooms away.

Having earlier watched The Thrills from the balcony, The Magic Numbers stepped onto the stage and immediately stepped up the tempo. Wisely eschewing the moodier sections of their first two albums, the band of brothers and sisters kept things poppy and loud. The beauty of a Magic Numbers live performance lies in the timeless combination of lead singer and lyricist Romeo Stodart’s chiming guitars, Michele Stodart’s pounding bass boogie, Angela Gannon’s sweet vocals and multi-instrumentalism, and Sean Gannon’s sure-footed drumming. But most of all it’s the tremendous harmonies that set The Magic Numbers apart from most other bands – particularly in the triple-layered interwoven lyrics of classics like Morning’s Eleven and Forever Lost, and the lilting vulnerability of Undecided from their second album, Those The Brokes. By the end of their set, when The Magic Numbers retreated from the stage and prepared to watch the headline act from the wings, the roof of Indigo2 had truly been raised by one of this decade’s most beguiling and appealing bands.

After the perfect build-up, and having performed a few days before in a Hyde Park festival with second billing to Peter Gabriel, the re-formed Crowded House took to the stage at 10pm, winning a tumultuous round of applause from the mixed audience of British and Antipodeans. Having set records with their wildly popular farewell concert on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in November 1996, the band has recorded a new album, Time On Earth, and immediately won coveted slots at music festivals throughout the US and Europe. Returning from that line-up, the core trio of Neil Finn, Nick Seymour and Mark Hart still fit together seamlessly. American drummer Matt Sherrod, who has recently worked with Beck, was brought in to replace the irrepressible Paul Hester, who sadly committed suicide in March 2005. And Neil’s son Liam, now a tall bearded figure like a Russian Guardsman, provides extra guitar, keyboards and vocals. Neil sported a shaggy mane of hair not unlike the barnet now adorning former Jam man Paul Weller.

Mindful of the wider audience via webcast, Crowded House included four or five numbers from the new album, including the pure-voiced Don’t Stop Now, which fits into the mould of the melodic tunes from the recent Finn Brothers album. One quieter number that built into a strong jamming outro was introduced by Neil Finn in a way presumably incomprehensible to non-New Zealanders: ‘This is a song about… oh, I’ve forgotten his first name. You know, Norm Hewitt’s brother. The guy in the wetsuit’.

Nick Seymour’s fluid bass style propels the band’s rockier moments, and he still quips along with Neil Finn’s inter-song banter, raising the humour quota. Studious Mark Hart, formerly of Supertramp, gives off a monkish air as he concentrates on perfecting his keyboard fills, but the audience detects a small grin here and there. New drummer Matt Sherrod, who didn’t know Crowded House’s music before he was asked to join the group, impresses with his enthusiasm and directness, which adds a forceful sense of gravity, particularly in rockier numbers like the choppy glam of Locked Out.

But the crowd wanted to hear the big sing-along singles most of all, and Crowded House didn’t disappoint. Don’t Dream It’s Over, Distant Sun and Weather With You all impressed and got the audience singing along. 'Sing like a bird released'? It was as if Crowded House had never really left us at all.

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