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Live review: Crowded House at Club Nokia

August 22, 2010 |  7:41 pm

Neil Finn’s current version of the band lets its jam-happy instincts get the better of it.

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Close to the bottom of a list of things you want to see at a Crowded House show is a jam session. Formed in Australia in 1985, this old-model pop-rock group has always revolved around the songwriting of frontman Neil Finn, an affable New Zealand native with an uncommon flair for pairing words and melodies. 

The consistent quality of Finn’s tunecraft is the principal reason why Crowded House’s reunion in 2006 — following a 10-year break and the death of the band’s original drummer, Paul Hester — proceeded so smoothly. Here’s a guy whose work might live longer on sheet music than on CD.

Finn displayed flashes of that compositional gift Friday night at Club Nokia, where he led the current version of Crowded House through a two-hour show split about evenly between older material and more recent songs from 2007’s “Time on Earth” and this summer’s “Intriguer.” Before he sang “Message to My Girl,” by his early group Split Enz, Finn mentioned what key it was in, and a significant portion of the audience appeared to find the news interesting.

Yet the musicians also spent an awful lot of time bashing away aimlessly at their instruments, unmoored from the impressive architecture of Finn’s songs. “Distant Sun” started out strongly as a winsome jangle-pop number but ended up adrift in a sea of blandly anonymous guitar-band fuzz; something similar happened in “Hole in the River,” a thoughtful highlight from Crowded House’s self-titled debut. If this doesn’t sound as boring as it was, imagine the inverse: a Ke$ha concert full of folk ditties.

It was possible to understand Finn’s thinking here. At a moment when many acts are earning more money from touring than from selling recordings, it makes sense to offer an experience unique to the live setting. Finn’s stage banter Friday, particularly during a stretch of equipment trouble, offered a charming demonstration of that strategy (without feeling like a strategy at all). Musically, though, the band’s lengthy instrumental digressions only served to dilute the potency of what sets Crowded House apart from the zillion other bands swimming in the Beatles’ wake.

Perhaps Finn knew that too. At Club Nokia the group resisted the urge to stretch out in two of its most well-known hits, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Locked Out,” the latter of which sounded as vital — and as tidy — as it ever has. And when the band went off-script in “Weather With You,” from 1991’s “Woodface,” it only did it to interpolate a bit of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” It was one detour that improved the overall trip.

-- Mikael Wood

Photo credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times


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