“Watch how she fades, into the sunset…”

After sitting through the film version of Les Misérables recently, I was reminded that I never did get round to recounting my 2001 trip to London. The link being that my destination was The Palace Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, the home of the stage performance of “Les Mis” for many years. However, this particular night, the venue was handed over to a certain singer/ songwriter from New Zealand.

I found out about the gig purely by chance. I had no internet connection back then and relied on the ever wonderful Peter Green in the fan club sending mail shots in time, word of mouth or the little dodgy internet café in town. That was an evocative place, with sticky carpets and a distinct odour. It wasn’t somewhere I liked to spend too much time, but such was the attraction of the internet, I spent more time there that I should have.

It was in here that I caught sight of the gig and after scribbling down the time, date and fax number of the box office – yes, faxes – remember those! I scampered off and wrote my letter. I asked for a stall seat and faxed off the next working day from the office. I had a phone call confirming the purchase and a few days later, the golden ticket was in my possession.

This sparked off a mad few days, as I had not even thought about travel or hotels. In fact, I hadn’t thought of anything at all, let alone this would be my first ever trip to the capital city on my own. At that time, if there were online train or bus websites, I didn’t know them. Who had heard of Expedia, Bookings.com or Zoopla for hotels – not me – most weren’t even invented – so it was the old school phone for me and I soon realised the flaw in my plan – hotel costs too steep – train travel meant a kidney sale.

So it was the good old National Express from Leeds to London Victoria at 6am – with the return journey leaving Victoria at midnight. I had no idea where Victoria was in London, but it sounded exotic enough! Fast forward and the trip down was largely uneventful and forgetful. With my new and revolutionary Sony MP3 player in hand and earphones plugged in – how did we carry around CD players again – I was cramped into my seat and closed my eyes, dreaming of streets paved with gold.

OK, so Victoria wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was LONDON! The adrenaline was pumping and I could do anything, go anywhere! Well, apart from a few facts that, in hindsight, I should have researched. The tube looked amazing, but I didn’t know how to use it, so I walked. I knew I was in Victoria and I had to get to the Palace Theatre, but I didn’t know where to go and I quickly found that people in London don’t tend to stop to talk.

So I walked and walked. The sights and sounds of London continue to thrill me to this day, but I will never forget that walk. I felt 10 feet tall. Buildings so big they looked like they were built by giants for Kings and Queens. The hustle, the speed people walked, the sights – who can fail to fall in love with our capital city. By teatime I was shattered. I was somewhere, but not sure where and starving. So nipped into a Pizza Hut for a “table for one” and started talking to the waitress. She asked where I was going and told her – she had no idea who Neil Finn was, but was a tad concerned that I was a fair distance from the venue.

Panic began to set in and with only a few rough directions in hand, my idealistic dreamlike day was beginning to crumble. It was 6.45 by the time I arrived at the Palace and my head was beginning to spin. I was beginning to even question if I had the right place as there was little sign that this was the place the great man was playing. Aside from an A4 piece of paper stuck on the front doors, you could have been forgiven for not even noticing.

The day was taking it toll and I got into the venue, before slumping into my chair. I was shattered and I hadn’t even considered how the hell I was to find my way back to Victoria for the long 5 hour trip home. That is, however, where fate stepped in. A tentative conversation with the guy next to me sprang from his Chelsea football club scarf. Football and music are my 2 stock conversation pieces, so this was pretty much heaven sent. He turned out to be a long time Finn fan called Garry and we chatted until the support act came on. I had asked about directions to the bus and he said he would help after.

With that in mind, we settled and respectfully listened to the wonderful sounds of Ed Harcourt. I had never heard of him, but my tired mind connected with Ed’s lyrics and kept me out of the slumber zone. With Ed taking his bow, the theatre was beginning to buzz. I had a perfect view, stalls row D and pretty central. It wasn’t long before the crowd were on their feet as the main man wandered on stage. Guitar in hand, wearing a smart suit and began.. An acoustic version of “When you come.”

The gig was to promote Neil’s new CD, the follow up to the magnificent “Try Whistling This” called “One Nil”. It was to be in two parts, old stuff first and new stuff a bit later on with his “band” that was assembled for the night. Little did we know that this gig was to pass into Finnatic folklore as the night would wear on. There are times I am quite embarrassed to admit to people how often I have seen Neil play over the years. Between Crowded House, Neil solo, Neil with his brother Tim and other Finn related gigs, the total exceeds 80 shows. I have had some special nights, however, this one really hit the heights.

Setlists, setlists, setlists – they are so important to us. What was played, was there a variation, was there an addition. So this is where I will indulge the fan in me and run through the show. Sadly there as limited footage shot by fans of this gig. Mobile phones with video capability didn’t overly exist – well, not widespread at least – and those that did had limited capability and whilst the gig was professionally recorded, it still has yet to see the light of day. I have added snippets from youtube where I can (click the links).

“When you come” was followed by the sumptuous “Not the girl you think you are”, again on acoustic. Talking between songs, Neil told us about going to buy a new suit for his West End debut. His one and only show in the west end, a short run he called it. “My name is Jean Valjean”… bellowed Neil in a thespian nod to his surroundings. The first new song of the night was “Turn and Run” – this was a duet with Sheryl Crow, but sang solo on this occasion. The stupendous “Distant Sun” followed as the gig began to flow. As Neil headed for the piano for the next few songs, he apologised to some people in the boxes as he realised they wouldn’t be able to see.

This became known as the infamous “Action shot” moment, as I was unaware that Garry was recording the show on his little recorder and everything I said was caught loud and clear. As I tried to catch a photo of Neil throwing toffees up to the affected fans, I cried something like “What an action shot that will be” – it came back to haunt me. “Try Whistling This” was next up, followed by the “Last Day of June”. A stunning pair of songs back to back and played almost faultlessly. Neil then invited a lad called Steve to stage to accompany him on a song. That was a fan called Steve Bell, who bounded on stage to tremendous applause. Steve played piano on “Message to my girl”, before Neil asked if anyone knew the harmony section on “Four Seasons in one day” to which a lad called Micky joined the pair on stage.

Neil commented how the fans could pretty much replace him, before the pair departed and Neil introduced his band for the night. Wendy and Lisa of “Prince” fame, along with Sebastian Steinberg on bass and finally Dave on drums. They went through the new CD with an effortless enthusiasm & charm. “Anytime” was followed by “Don’t ask why”, “Secret God” & “Sinner”. The latter snuck in at this point, even though it was off Neil’s previous CD. “Last to know”, “Rest of the day off” followed as the gig began to hit new heights.

Inbetween we were told how Dave had been burgled and Neil suggested that Dave should cash in on our sympathy. Neil had also invited questions from the beginning and they kept coming at him, as did the cheeky shoutout requests, including take your shirt off! – “all in the timing” he reminded the song hungry Frenz. The next part of the set showcased Neils talents superbly, “She will have her way”, “Wherever you are” and the awesome “Private Universe” were enough to send any fan home happy. But things were not to stop there. The band introduced us to “Driving Me Mad”, before they rocked out on “Loose Tongue” . After which Neil asked if anyone knew how to play “Weather With You” .

Turned out to be Mickys (who joined on stage earlier) dad! Well, suffice to say, that worked perfectly and once again, we were transfixed by the majestical Mr Finn. “Suffer Never” followed before the gig was ended with “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. Shivers down the spine at the last song as we lapped up what proved to be the final song of the night. With Neil departing, reality came crashing down. I had only a short period of time to cross London and get my bus home. This is where Garry (Zola) and his frenz Jackie and Fred stepped in. They didn’t know me. They didn’t have to help. However they invited me into their taxi and got me to Victoria in time.

That action was to prove the beginning of a friendship which endures to this day. My arrival home was at some ungodly hour in the morning. My head ached, my body was tired, but my ears were ringing and ablaze with new music as my mind replayed the gig over and over again. Once Garry sorted out the recording, I had the CD version to play and over time, I tracked down the sound engineer who provided me with a better quality version, albeit without the infamous “Action Shot”.

So that was my first big trip to London and a rather self indulgent blog post today. If your still with me, there are no prizes for guessing what your reward will be. This song is from “One Nil”, but was not present on that night. Which was strange, given the excellence. Neil Finn : “Into the Sunset”.

Enjoy…

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