Live Review: The Divine Comedy at York Barbican

I’ve been to a fair number of gigs over the years, and I remember them really well. There was the raucous (Motorhead in Newcastle), the stadium events (U2 in the distance at Leeds), the ‘wow! they’re playing here!’ (REM in Hull), the legend can’t quite cut it any more (Dylan in Hyde Park), as well as many more intimate affairs. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gig that mixed pathos and comedy in the way that The Divine Comedy did in York.

Review by Miles Salter

Photos by John Hayhurst (@snapagig)

The band is Neil Hannon’s baby. The Irish singer-songwriter has been releasing albums under the moniker ‘Divine Comedy’ since 1990, and there are over ten studio albums. To remind the world that he’s still at it, a recent retrospective set, Charmed Life, was released in February, along with the single Best Mistakes. The band are two thirds of the way through a lengthy tour. 

After a set from the rather affected Barbara (think Roxy Music fronted by Hugh Grant, but without the hooks), Hannon appeared with his five hand-picked band mates. The opening song, Absent Friends, is a hymn to mortality, with nods of the head to Steve McQueen, Oscar Wilde and Laika the space dog. The song is drenched in pathos, with an anthemic melody so good it could easily have closed the show. 

On the whole, the melancholic songs were the ones that affected this reviewer the most. A Lady of Certain Age is full of sadness about a life half-lived. Hannon is fantastic at exposing life’s shadowy corners, the disenchantment and weariness that we all feel at some point. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s read Philip Larkin, the gloomy (but brilliant) English poet. The melancholy, though, is balanced with good humour. When a passionate male fan yells his adoration of the singer at various points in the show, Hannon handles it well, his band mates breaking into sixty seconds of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. During a key change in a song, a man in a pin stripe suit with an umbrella comes on and shifts Hannon’s capo at precisely the right moment, before walking briskly off.  This was a comedic touch that perfectly fitted the eccentricity of some of the songs, and was quite brilliant. Hannon pulls out some flowers that are on a table next to him, suddenly revealing that they are a percussion instrument. ‘Here’s a song about a bus,’ says Hannon, before launching into their most celebrated song, ‘National Express’, a cheeky postcard about the joys of cheap travel. 

After two sets, Hannon is flagging. The tour has been running for two months and he admits to being weary. They end with Tonight We Fly, another anthem on life’s impermanence, and a mirror image to the opening song. ‘If heaven doesn’t exist, what will we have missed, this life is the best we ever had,’ sings Hannon. I wasn’t a big fan before this gig, and had never seen the band before, but this was really impressive.

Barbara and The Divine Comedy played at The Barbican, York on Saturday 30 April 2022.