Rock & Jazz: It seems like only yesterday - a legend returns after 33 years
Sunday 27 October 1996
Jamal - who looks like a benign African-American tourist in immaculate leisure-wear - began the show at breakneck speed with 10 minutes of sustained attack that left the audience spellbound - which was, of course, the wily old bird's intention. He then relaxed a little (later he relaxed rather a lot), rising from his seat to perambulate around the four musicians of the band as if surveying his estate. The musicians looked scared stiff rather than, as Jamal told me later, excited.
Jamal's main contribution lies, he says, in bringing an orchestral approach to small-group jazz. This means that he conducts from the keyboard with the absolute authority of a Karajan, constantly nodding his head, pointing his finger and calling out guttural instructions to extract every last ounce of obedience from the band, who exist only as an extension of his inevitably triumphant will. When the guitarist failed to respond as Jamal wished, he was given a very public finger-wagging and denied the treat of his solo. You felt he would have been dispatched to a dunce's stool in the corner if he hadn't been sitting there already.
Part genius, part incorrigible old fusspot: with each quality indivisible from the other, Jamal's monomania grew as the concert went on. By the end, you began to imagine Gauleiter epaulettes sprouting from his shoulders. But despite the controlling-parent attitude, he's a killer pianist. When he nonchalantly stroked the keys for "Poinciana", his big hit of the Fifties, later disinterred by Clint Eastwood for the soundtrack of The Bridges of Madison County, it was such an effective blend of high art and sentimental kitsch that even the sorry guitarist looked blissful.
With a name like The Divine Comedy, a band has to be either really good or really funny. Falling between the two stools does Dante a disservice, and while The Divine Comedy are, well, quite good and quite funny, their get-out clause is that they at least have an authentic touch of the divine about them, courtesy of their theme-tune for Father Ted. Advance reports suggested two things. One was that The Divine Comedy play music for bank clerks; the other that some of the band's fans wear clerical collars to their gigs. Sadly, there were no Father Jacks at the group's performance at Bristol University, enlivening the between-songs chat with shouts of "Drink!", but there were an awful lot of freshers, many of whom knew the words to half the songs. The bank-clerk jibe chimed mainly with the appearance of the group's leader, Neil Hannon, who looked like a cross between Jarvis Cocker and a Burton's shop-window dummy circa 1966, complete with a knot in his tie as thick as a fist. With his grey two-piece suit and foppish mod haircut, the Irish Hannon - who basically is The Divine Comedy in the same way that Jarvis is Pulp - undeniably has clearing-house chic, which means that for most of us he has no chic at all.
He also has a Scott Walker fixation as big as the Ritz. On the band's album Casanova (Setanta), Hannon writes songs that are both about the Sixties ("Something for the Weekend", "Becoming More Like Alfie" - the single which took the powerful fancy of Chris Evans) and, due to cheesy trumpet-lines and strings, curiously of them. If it wasn't for post-modernism, the band could be trapped into a career of Sixties pastiche on the Northern club circuit, where they could survive quite happily because they can play and know how to put on a good show. Their version of the Walker Brothers' pomp-classic "Make It Easy on Yourself" was good enough for Stars In Their Eyes.
But where Scott Walker went on to Jacques Brel chanson and, eventually, silence, Hannon is stuck in the run-off groove of a Paul and Barry Ryan record. Will he progress to the psychedelia of 1967 like Kula Shaker, or become a wizened lounge-lizard before his time, like Marc Almond (a fate his trembly baritone makes possible)?
The two new songs he premiered suggested that there is life in the old mod yet, with gorgeous power-pop choruses and lyrics less arch than those on the too-clever-by-half Casanova. And Hannon is a genuinely impressive frontman, able to sing and drink his pint of Guinness during the encore with ease. Which is just as well, because it's iron in the soul, rather than irony, that The Divine Comedy require.
Happily, Zion Train (seen at the Riverside in Newcastle) are an irony- free zone, which allows them to sing slogans like "Love your fellow man" with total confidence. I once got stuck inside their CD-Rom, and, unable to find the code to get out, found myself trapped in a virtual hell of rotating cannabis leaves and grainy pictures of road protesters in trees. Live, they are much more user-friendly, a dub sound system for the New Age, digital twiddlings on hard disk mixed with live vocals and a horn section of trombone, trumpet and melodica. They play so loudly that the reggae pulse becomes internalised, the body's surfaces reverberating like the cloth covering on speaker cabinets. Unlike The Divine Comedy, there's hardly a text, never mind a subtext, and the mind can therefore go into neutral and leave the body to get on with it. True, there's little of Lee Perry's subtlety or wit, but no one mentions Alfie or abuses the musicians. With your plastic glass of lager expanding and contracting in time to the beat, it's a remarkably consoling experience.
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