Back in 2019, Donald Fagen introduced a Steely Dan live show at The Point in Dublin’s docklands by claiming he was delighted to be back in London. Twenty years earlier, the late American crooner, Perry Como, was rolled out onto stage at the same venue, stared out into the deep and told the crowd how happy he was to be in Durban. Fog on the brain is one of the uglier aspects of the onward roll of years.
With family connections routed back to County Limerick, a founding member who’s lived in the centre of Dublin for thirty years and an enduring connection with audiences in Ireland, there was never any prospect of Crowded House coming so unstuck. On a festival-scale stage on the rolling playing fields within the walls of Trinity College, the group’s founder Neil Finn – one of the most quietly effective and self-effacing writers in the history of contemporary popular music – knows exactly where he is. It’s long been thus.
The university’s considerable reputation isn’t lost on him and he alludes to that a couple of times during what is by-and-large a two-hour, best-of show sprinkled with the odd cut from last year’s ‘Dreamers Are Waiting’ elpee. But scanning the crowd – the bulk of which is old enough to go back with Crowded House to its self-titled debut album, released in 1986 – you’d imagine there are many here who are as familiar with Trinity’s place in local pop cultural lore as they are with its status as an academic institution. It was on the hallowed tiles here, after all, that Simon Carmody of The Golden Horde once placed a flower in the barrel of one of Public Enemy’s Uzi machine guns [they were imitations, unfortunately] during a scarcely believable Trinity Ball appearance. It is where, on the other end of the poseur’s Richter Scale, a callow and nervy Prefab Sprout – with Virginia Astley on piano – played an almighty set in The Buttery in April, 1984. And it’s where, back in 1986, another outfit from the Southern Hemisphere, The Go-Betweens, played a memorable lunchtime turn on the steps of the Science Building to a small audience of anoraks, tourists and a handful of disinterested students tucking into sandwiches and gargle. The writer and journalist Kieran Cunningham, a venerable TCD graduate, has captured some of that largely undocumented history of the college far more eloquently in a terrific piece here.
On the surface at least, Crowded House have always presented as an uncomplicated and straight-forward outfit dealing for the most part with matters that are often anything but: love, place, family, identity, the human condition and the vagaries of everyday life. Finn is a master painter and many of their songs come doused in magnificent multi-part harmonies and deceptively catchy breaks: the organ run on ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, the brief upward diversion on ‘Fall At Your Feet’ that begins as soon as ‘the finger of blame has turned upon itself’, ‘Pineapple Head’s outro and so on. The devil has long been in the detail and, to this end, it’s worth noting the contributions tonight of Crowded House’s erstwhile producer, Mitchell Froom, on keyboards and Paul Taylor on percussion. In the best traditions of these things, you only miss them when they’re not there. So as such, their radio-friendly body of work is probably better known than one might think: you mightn’t always know the names but you’ll certainly recognise the handwriting.
There’s often a rare beauty in that kind of familiarity, I think. Given society’s obsessive sprint towards oblivion, and the backdrop without clarity or definition against which we’re playing out that race, there’s something very welcome about Crowded House’s soft centre. So although nostalgia is best served with caution – and all the more so when compounded with free-form revisionism – there’s something quietly re-assuring about those recent touring sets by the likes of The Pet Shop Boys, David Gray and even The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Like McCartney at Glastonbury, those shows have been important not least of all because of the shelter they bring. The calm in the storm, the static in the flow.
Of which …
Twenty-five years ago, I was part of an Irish documentary crew that fetched up one morning into a basic office at Watford Football Club in Hertfordshire. The late Graham Taylor had agreed to talk to my friend, the author and academic, Dave Hannigan, about a mutual love of theirs: the footballer, Paul McGrath. Taylor was as warm, personable and insightful as we imagined he might be and, like many others we encountered during the making of a film we eventually titled ‘They Called Him God’, came alive when he recalled the more outlandish and chaotic aspects of Paul’s life and career on and off of the field.
During Taylor’s tenure as manager at Aston Villa, he helped to re-energise McGrath’s career after the centre-half was let go by Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. I’ve long suspected that there was a far more fundamental piece at play here too: Taylor kept Paul McGrath alive. ‘All Paul needed in his life at that point’, he told Dave, ‘was certainty. And I felt we could give him that certainty’. It’s a line that has long resonated with me.
And so, as these things tend to go, Paul McGrath and Crowded House – and another old friend of mine, the late Aiden Lambert – will forever be connected, and I’ve written in detail about the reasons why in a previous piece here. During the summer of 1994, I spent a couple of weeks on the road in the company of a Dublin group, Blink, who’d snared a support slot with Crowded House on a tour that took them to every arena of note across the United Kingdom. That tour culminated with a headline appearance at the Fleadh festival in Finsbury Park in North London, during which Crowded House returned to the main stage for its encore wearing replica Republic of Ireland football shirts. A week or so later, Ireland beat Italy in a World Cup group game at the Giant’s Stadium in New York and the country went into a frenzied and all-too fleeting tail-spin: that match will forever be remembered for a goal scored by Ray Houghton and an imperious defensive display by Paul McGrath who, at one point, seemed to be repelling the Italians on his own. In donning those green tops, Crowded House knew, yet again, exactly where they were and the history that surrounded them in that field in N4.
One of the features of that tour was the presence, on-stage and off, of Neil’s family. His wife, Sharon, would come on and do a cameo on keyboards and vocals as his sons, Liam and Elroy, gallivanted around the narrow back-stage warrens in those big arenas. Tonight, in full beards, both of them are on-stage alongside their father as part of the latest Crowded House line-up. Completing another circle, Liam’s own son, Buddy, made a cameo appearance with the group during their recent set on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.
Back in 1994, Crowded House were plugging what, to me, remains their best elpee, ‘Together Alone’ and, nearly thirty years on and that record is still back-boning the group’s long, sun-kissed sets. Leading with as strong an opening hand as I can recall – ‘Distant Sun’, ‘Nails In My Feet’, ‘To The Island’ and ‘Fall At Your Feet’ – you’re quickly reminded of just how majestic they are when in full flight. As soon as four of them saunter to the mics to tackle the choruses they’ve already secured the points, job done. An older number, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, later segues seamlessly into one of the most memorable harmony-led pop songs in history, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ by The Everly Brothers. And that nod to Don and Phil – masters of the art of the shared vocal – isn’t lost on the muso fraternity, which is gathered in force for yet another meeting of the praesidium.
Elsewhere the set features an even spread of material from ‘Temple of Low Men’ , ‘Woodface’  and ‘Dreamers are Waiting’, a surprise record many thought unlikely. And it’s all very even-tempered as it goes, no alarms or surprises, nothing to cause undue concern in the Provost’s on-site residence. Indeed the only time the tempo quickens and the mood swings is during a slashy ‘Black and White Boy’ – replete with duelling guitars – and then later again during a version of ‘Heroes’ when, in replicating one of Bowie’s later-period poses, Neil inadvertently tugs at a stray lead and drags a keyboard over onto its side. Other that that it’s a serene couple of hours that’s perfectly in keeping with the setting.
On the way home afterwards, I go through the set-list because old habits are hard to shake and because I can: the elderly and the afflicted among us specialise in this sort of carry-on. Nothing from ‘Intriguer’ or ‘Time on Earth’. No ‘Into Temptation’ or ‘In My Command’ or ‘Walking on the Spot’. Nothing from Neil’s solo records or, indeed, from the two terrific albums he made with his brother, Tim. [The first of which, ‘Finn’, is soon to be resuscitated by the Needle Mythology label, just mar eolas]. And a sop to the hunters and collectors, a terrific, piano-led version of an old Split Enz number, ‘Message To My Girl’ – that owes a debt to another writer of timeless pop songs, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and how bad ? – as part of a four-song encore.
Plenty, then, to consider for the next time around. Because even in a world of uncertainty, there’s always a next time around.
Mighty, like a rose.
Went to see them in Cork last Monday night , they really connected with the audience and I thought I saw a tear in Neil s eye from the warmth of the response from the audience . A glorious set of tunes and that’s what they really are , a tuneful band . I ve spent the week pulling out the 1st 3 albums on cassette and playing them to much glee . I also discovered a full set of Neil ( & Tim Finn ) CD s that all need to be re visited over the coming weeks . A bonus was to see Mitchel Froom on keys who has produced so many great albums over the years
Thanks for reading, John. I dug out a bit of Finn Brothers [and ALT] during the week myself. Will Harris and Pete Paphides are re-issuing the ‘Finn’ album on vinyl [with an additional series of demos etc] on their Needle Mythology imprint shortly. How bad ? Colm
I saw a copy of the ALT vinyl re issue in OMG Galway last week – serious bucks ! I
I can well imagine.