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Pop Music Review

Less Is More as Neil Finn Solos : Guest Musicians and Even the Audience Give Popmeister's Splendid Show a Communal Vibe

November 16, 1998|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After performing his opening number ("Last One Standing") at the Coach House on Friday night, singer-songwriter Neil Finn remarked: "Nothing's changed since I played here about 10 years ago . . . except that I lost a band."

The lonely-looking Finn was referring, of course, to his former mates in Crowded House, the excellent pop band from New Zealand that he broke up in 1996.

His distinctive voice remains as sparkling as ever, while the hook-laden melodies still flow with regularity. No surprises there. But even without a backing band, Finn's current solo tour is hardly a solitary endeavor.

Scheduled to join Finn at various points on this brief U.S. trek are such rock notables as Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Grant Lee Phillips of Grant Lee Buffalo. For this San Juan Capistrano stopover before a very crowded house, Finn made the most of the human resources on hand to deliver a splendid, wide-ranging performance filled with charisma, humor and hummable tunes.

One of the evening's guest turns came from a bespectacled Phillips, who lent his vocals, guitar playing and quirkiness to half a dozen numbers, including a stripped-down yet still edgy version of Grant Lee Buffalo's 1994 gem, "Honey Don't Think." Another was countryman and opening act Dave Dobbyn, who packed a wallop on electric guitar during "Sinner," a new soul-baring number that slams what it sees as manipulation by organized religion.

Even the enthusiastic audience got into the act, whether collectively singing choruses or jogging Finn's memory after he botched a line during the Split Enz tune "One Step Ahead." In fact, Finn's delightful between-song banter ranged from his local car-pooling misadventures (yes, Neil, crossing that double-yellow stripe is a no-no) to the "big cultural differences that separate us."

*

While there was no mistaking the communal vibe that prevailed throughout, there were numerous occasions in which the charming popmeister got to shine in the spotlight.

For instance, the recorded version of the title track from Finn's solo debut, "Try Whistling This," is disappointingly overproduced with its emphasis on electronic textures. But scaled back here with just Finn singing and playing piano, the complex love song, co-written by Finn and Midnight Oil guitarist Jim Moginie, became more immediate and vulnerable, opening up more room for listeners to absorb the poetic lyrics of yearning, hope and devotion.

Finn can also get noisy with equally impressive results. An unexpected highlight occurred when he strapped on an electric guitar and unleashed a torrent of reverb-drenched licks for "Suffer Never," an evocative, moody song pulled from his 1995 collaboration with older sibling Tim, simply titled "Finn Brothers."

Over the years, Finn has composed some of the most memorable melodies in pop music, among them radio-friendly favorites like "Something So Strong," "World Where You Live," "Weather With You" and "Don't Dream It's Over," the last climbing to No. 2 on the pop charts in 1987. But similar to the much-admired song craft of the Kinks and Squeeze, there is depth and invention to this ear candy.

Upon close inspection, you'll uncover hard-to-decipher lyrics. They're worth probing further. Hopelessly romantic in nature and laced with skepticism, the selections that lingered most after Friday's gig were those with a darker, ambiguous edge, including "Private Universe," "Souvenir" and the bittersweet "Distant Sun."

Still, the entertaining--and unpredictable--Finn is not one to wallow in despair. How many musicians do you know who can get an audience to merrily whistle along to the theme song of "The Andy Griffith Show"?

*

Opener Dobbyn did not fare as well. While his guitar chops did add muscle to the headliner's set, he was far less effective in a leading role. Except for a pair of tunes--the sea chantey "Whaling" and the vividly drawn "Hallelujah Song"--Dobbyn failed to rise above the ordinary. The singer-songwriter's paper-thin vocals and a shortage of memorable melodies were major drawbacks in a rather bland slice of folk-laced pop-rock.

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