Neil Finn has begun sporting a mustache. And as the Crowded House frontman confided to the band's audience Monday night at New York's Bowery Ballroom, the public response hasn't been kind. "A review the other day basically said I looked more like the head waiter on the Titanic than a singer," he said, drawing sympathetic laughs. Finn paused a beat, then added mischievously, "I was just pleased that I was the head waiter."
Among these and other jokey asides, Finn and the rest of the Crowded House crew turned in a sublime performance to kick off a three-night stand at the Bowery, mixing old favorites with songs from the band's two post-reunion albums, 2007's "Time on Earth" and the newly released follow-up, "Intriguer."
The original Crowded House trio of Finn, bassist Nick Seymour and drummer Paul Hester was so musically simpatico in the studio and on stage that some fans (including this reviewer) winced when Finn announced in early 2007 that he was reuniting the band.
A full reunion was impossible -- tragically, Hester had committed suicide two years earlier. And the two superb post-Crowded House albums that Finn had released under his own name raised the thrilling possibility that this pop-music veteran was hitting a new creative peak as a solo artist. To cut that short and revive the band felt like a step backward.
But Crowded House's stirring show Monday night provided vivid evidence to validate Finn's decision. Bringing ex-Beck drummer Matt Sherrod into the fold enabled him to continue exploring new musical textures as he'd done in his solo work, even as he reconnected with the musical camaraderie he'd enjoyed with Seymour and Crowded House guitarist/keyboardist Mark Hart.
Sherrod's finesse and power propelled the band's performances of "Intriguer" songs like "Twice If You're Lucky" and "Isolation," while lending a completely different feel to older songs in the catalog. "Private Universe" pulsed with new energy as he pounded the floor tom, the first half of "Black and White Boy" found him working the groove on the hi-hat and the extended close to "Hole in the River" featured an intricate percussion pattern. Other than Finn's ever-evolving songwriting, Sherrod's playing probably defines the sound of Crowded House, Mark II better than anything else.
Meanwhile, Seymour demonstrated that he remains a restlessly inventive bassist, while jack-of-all-trades Hart alternated on guitar, keyboards and pedal steel and sang lead vocals for a tongue-in-cheek rendition of the George Jones/Tammy Wynette chestnut "(We're Not) The Jet Set."
Finn, who backed Hart's performance with a credible Floyd Cramer imitation on electric piano, fed off the energy of his bandmates with an endearing enthusiasm that seems undimmed after more than three decades in the business. He took slinky guitar solos as the band jammed on extended versions of several numbers, brought out son Liam and wife Sharon on acoustic guitar and vocals and encouraged audience sing-alongs during "Fall at Your Feet," "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Four Seasons in One Day."
"Get more extravagant, let's add layers of harmonies to it," he urged toward the end of that last song. "Come on, I dare you."
Here is Crowded House's July 19 Set list:
I Feel Possessed
Fall at Your Feet
Don't Stop Now
Either Side of the World
Twice If You're Lucky
Black and White Boy
Say That Again (Liam Finn on acoustic guitar)
English Trees (Liam Finn on acoustic guitar and harmonies)
Hole in the River
Don't Dream It's Over
Isolation (co-lead vocals by Sharon Finn)
Archer's Arrows (backing vocals by Sharon Finn)
Mansion in the Slums
Love Is All That Remains
Four Seasons in One Day
(We're Not) The Jet Set
When You Come
It's Only Natural
In My Command
Weather with You