One Nil to Neil Finn, but the audience wins hands down

By David Whitely

Gig: Neil Finn (Alex Lloyd in support)
Venue: Old Colston Hall, Bristol
Date: Monday April 30, 2001
Crowd: Sell-out

The crowd slowly, deliberately filtered into the huge venue. The Colston Hall, with it's 1900's facade and 1950's moderne decor played host to a crowd that varied in age from teenagers to middle-agers.As the seats slowly filled, a single spotlight illuminated centre stage, revealing a microphone stand and an acoustic guitar propped nearby.

The murmer of voices, the shuffling of feet, and the occassional rustling of a crisp packet, continued as a young man dressed in a long sleaved t-shirt and black jeans slowly made his way to the stand. A polite ripple of applause greeted his entrance, and the man seemed taken aback, smiling sheepishly as he placed a bottle of water near the guitar. The applause petered out, those clapping unsure as to whether they had just given one of the stagehands an ovation. It began again as the young man picked up the guitar and strummed a few bars, then approached the microphone.

Much of the crowd continued talking as before, not taking much notice... then the man sang.

The audience was immediately in awe.

Alex Lloyd's voice lifted high into the auditorium, and every one there was captivated by his sheer vocal power. People halfway to their seats stopped, conversations broke off mid-sentence and crisp packets fell silently to the floor as every person realised they were in the presence of immense talent. Lloyd confidently, yet self conciously worked his way through his set, and let a largely English audience in on the ability which Australians have been lauding for years. As he finished his last song, the audience sat exhilirated - the power of what they had just experienced taking effect. The house lights illuminated a standing ovation as Lloyd mumbled an embarrassed word of thanks and ambled off the stage.

In any concert with a warm-up act like that, the main event could face the danger of being upstaged. However, when the main event is Neil Finn, that danger simply does not register.

By the time the former frontman of both Crowded House and Split Enz steps onto the stage the crowd's anticipation is such that a huge roar echoes around the Colston's high ceiling. Not one to stand on ceremony, Finn immediately launches into back-to-back classic Crowded House numbers "Mean To Me" and "Now We're Getting Somewhere" with such gusto that the audience scarcely has time to breathe. After the crowd calms down, Finn introduces himself in his broad New Zealand accent, shares a joke with a few die-hard fans in the front row and then does what no Australian or New Zealand singer of his generation has bettered... he sings his own songs with a passion scarcely experienced anymore. What sets Finn apart from his contemporaries is that when he sings the words you can tell he feels and means every one of them. It is no wonder that people like Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, The Smith's Johnny Marr and RadioHead's Ed O'Brien cite him as one of the greatest talents alive.

As the memories of Crowded House stir, Finn gets around to performing tracks off his new album One Nil... and the memories linger. The songwriting and vocal force behind the global phenomenon that was Crowded House has lost none of his edge, none of his relevance, and certainly none of his power to reach every member of an audience. People leant forward, some rushed to the front of the stage, but all were united as they hung on his every word, his every note. When a young girl leapt onto the stage and placed a written request on his guitar mid-song, Finn didn't bat an eyelid. He simply finished playing glanced down at the note and announced that he was singing this next song to the girl, Anna, who had just invaded the stage. Seconds later, the expectant crowd was treated to the most powerfully sung version of "Distant Sun" they had probably ever experienced, but there was one girl in the audience who will forever swear Neil Finn sang it to her alone.

As he wound up the set with perhaps the best song to come out of the antipodes in three decades, "Weather With You" the audience would not let him leave. He was off-stage for little more than three minutes but the crescendo of appreciation from the crowd continued unabaited - if anything it grew louder - but the roof nearly lifted clean off as Finn sauntered back on stage. "She Will Have Her Way" and "Sinner" (plus an impromptu "Lester") had hardly sated the expectation before the band and Finn vacated the stage once more. The noisome demand for more was louder this time, and he dutifully returned and capped off the night with perhaps the finest encore the audience will ever see. As he tenderly crooned "Try Whistling This" with only his own acoustic guitar as accompaniment, the crowd at the foot of the stage grew larger.

For his final song, Finn was taking requests and got a bizarre one. A young man in the crowd wanted to come on stage and play with the band. Finn turned to his stage hand.

"Do we have a spare guitar for this bloke?"

In an instant the debutante was on stage, standing beside Neil Finn who asked him to play a few bars. If he was nervous, he didn't show it, and after a couple of moments, Finn smiled.

"Sounds good," he said as he nodded to the band who launched into the Split Enz classic "I Got You" with vigour and unbridled enthusiasm.

When the audience roared at the end of that 1980's hit, it was out of sheer euphoria, and when Finn vacated the stage for the final time, they understood he could not be coaxed back but they screamed their appreciation anyway. The ovation lasted long after the house lights had come up and Neil Finn's first post-gig drink had been downed. The crowd left buzzing, but could not have been as wired as Finn for he does not perform with that intensity for the money - he does it because he loves it.

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