Fight The Sleep, But Not The Dream

The bear is creeping me out somewhat.

There are some bands who I will never miss whenever they play the UK. It becomes something of a duty. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Some of the bands I really love have become so huge that they will only play either tiny fan club gigs that only the message board fanatic has a chance of getting into, or bloated ugly stadium gigs. Which explains how I missed REM’s appearances last year. Glastonbury? No, thanks.

Crowded House still manage to get the balance right. They’re doing Hyde Park later this summer, supporting Thumbs-Aloft McCartney, but are ramping up for that enormo-gig with a romp through the sort of comfortably sized venues that really suit their approach to the material and the fan base.

To Oxford, then, and the charming New Theatre. TLC and I had seen the Finn Brothers here a few years back, and missed the encore to catch the last train. This time round, we drove. Well, TLC drove. I enjoyed the ride. We didn’t want to miss a minute of this one.

Support came from Connan Mockasin, a quirky New Zealander with a blonde mop (mirrored cutely by his band, which included Neil’s youngest son Elroy, all wearing Deirdre Barlow wigs), a Strat cut down to look like a Vox Teardrop and a great line in angular surrealist psych-pop. It was a brave choice of support, and could have gone down like a cup of cold sick. I’m reminded of Goldfrapp in full horse-headed dancer mode opening for Duran Duran on their last stadium tour, a move that lead to much consternation amidst the Lambrini brigade that had come along for nostalgia and ended up with songs about sex on ghost trains. But Connan’s wit and charm, as well as the skill of everyone concerned in switching between squalls and whoops of noise and locked-in motorik groove, won the day. I recommend checking out Forever Dolphin Love if nothing else.

Crowded House are on a roll at the moment. Neil Finn reformed the band in 2006 with the clear intention of writing and playing new songs. This is no greatest hits package. They’re in the UK touring Intriguer, the second album of new material, and to my mind they’ve never sounded better. Even though Intriguer isn’t out till next week (clearly a fubar by the record company, and a bit of a sore subject for Neil, who made the point that you could buy the support act’s record at the merch stand, but not the headliners) the new songs have a warmth and instant familiarity to them. There’s no radical change in direction here, but thought and care has been taken to update the sound while hanging onto the hooks and harmonies that make you smile. Intriguer is full of songs that will sneak into your thoughts and curl up, purring gently.

Sure, with a back catalouge of such range and quality there’s going to be a lot of sing-along moments. That is kind of the point to a Crowdie gig. Calling it audience participation doesn’t really do the feeling justice. There’s a real sense of communication between the band and the room, and the moments of polka, the banter (what happened to the goose?) and the point where Neil had the whole audience humming a perfect E minor are par for the course. The balance of new to familiar material was perfectly judged, and even the oldies were played around with enough to keep them interesting without doing the Dylan thing of rendering them unrecognisable. But the most important thing about a Crowded House gig is a sense of community, of communion. I know fans of any band will say the same, but I can’t think of any big names connecting with an audience in the same way that Crowded House manage so effortlessly. An audience united in a love of songs set in a private universe where dreams and reality blur and merge, and where sex is a primary, almost religious force.

We drove back from Oxford through dark and winding roads, voices hoarse from an evening of hollering along with some of our favourite songs. The skies ahead of us glowed, matching our contentment.

Crowded House are touring the UK through June. The new album Intriguer is out on June 11th, and is available for preorder now through all the usual outlets. Go get.