Sometimes in life it is just so abundantly clear when you are being handed a gift. Of course, all of life is a gift – but some moments leap out off the page and are unmistakably so.
Witnessing Crowded House play on the Opera House forecourt last night was one such moment. 20 years after their Farewell Show in 1996 – almost to the day – Sydney once again channelled its seemingly repressed singing energy into this iconic space, as Neil Finn and his band mates Nick Seymour, Mark Hart and Matt Sherrod, invited us to join them in a city wide family singalong.
The very fact that these concerts were being staged at all seemed to leave most of us somewhere between uncontainable excitement and stunned disbelief. After all, what are the odds of a night like this even happening? The band still happy to play together. The same venue and dates as 20 years ago. The band still in top musical form, stewarding their musical gifts with care and love, unlike many famous rockers of decades past. The perfect weather. A crowd whose love for these songs seemed to run deeper than almost any of us realised. This night was indeed a gift and will never be forgotten.
The absence of Paul Hester was warmly felt by all – the affection we all felt for him at the 1996 gig carries on. And yet new drummer Matt Sherrod is an outstanding musician is his own right, not merely replicating Hester’s parts, but making them his own, and locking in beautifully with Finn and Seymour’s rhythmic parts.
There were subtle, deeply appreciated nods to the 1996 concert. The openers Mean To Me and World Where You Live were also the openers in 1996, played both then and now on Finn’s stunning Gold Top Gibson Les Paul guitar. Once again a beautiful stage backdrop was provided by Finn’s Split Enz bandmate Noel Crombie. Tim Finn was again welcomed back into the fold for a “Woodface moment”, playing favourites It’s Only Natural, Weather With You, and Four Seasons In One Day with the band he joined for a brief period in the early 1990s after penning those hits with brother Neil. And for the fans there were two more Finn brothers moments – the soulful Chocolate Cake, with Neil tearing it up on piano, and the late night fireside soundtrack How Will You Go.
But importantly, this was not just a 1996 rehash, or a one-off reunion. Crowded House reformed in 2007 with Sherrod on the skins, and has made two albums since then – Time On Earth and Intriguer – not to mention circling the globe for the ensuing world tours. Certainly, Finn has been active with his solo work and Pajama Club (his band with wife Sharon) – but Crowded House has been politely waiting in the wings, idling quietly, gig-fit and ready to go for concerts such as these.
And so with this newer incarnation of Crowded House came some moments unique to these shows. Pour Le Monde, with Neil at the piano, was a beautiful tribute to band mate Paul (“He’s the best you’ll ever know…”) and Either Side of the World was a gorgeous samba that sneakily tapped you on the shoulder and interrupted your swaying hips, confronting you with the bittersweet realities of global travel (“pay the maximum rate to feel so lonesome”). It was also wonderful to see Tim’s son Harper on keys at various points throughout the show, and Neil’s son Elroy standing in the shadows offering warm acoustic guitar for many tracks. Whereas any session musician in the country could have been hired for these nights, this is a family that values the preciousness family – and for the crowd, that love is infectious.
Some favourite moments of mine were the crowd being invited to sing 3-part harmony in Fall At Your Feet; the band launching powerfully into the rarely-played-live beauty Nails In My Feet; and the Finn-Seymour in-depth analysis of the new graphite black water bottles of 2016, labelled by Seymour as “Sentinels of Quench”. With the Crowdies, the on-stage banter has always been as memorable as the music.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all was the palpable sense of joy that emanated from the crowd from the very first chord. This is not the case at every large concert. But people here seemed so hungry to sing these songs that have guided them through life’s varied terrains. Many (myself included!) started singing from song one and didn’t relent until the night was over. As the camera panned throughout the crowd, the smiles were wide, the singing was full and heartfelt, and the faces possessed a joyful innocence that we have missed in 2016 – a troubling year around the world.
Bob Dylan said in 2012 that as a songwriter, “The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions.” I couldn’t help but feel that in returning to the city that farewelled them 20 years earlier, Crowded House on this night not only helped us – as individuals and as a city – to feel our emotions. In fact, Crowded House helped us rediscover emotions we had forgotten were there. What a gift.