Not only did Neil Finn use a grand piano onstage at the Shubert Theater as a vehicle to deliver his catchy, layered, melodic pop songs. He also used it to make a grand entrance: Rather than walking around it after opening with “Impressions” (the first track off his latest release, Dizzy Heights) on piano, to assume his center stage, guitar-playing spot, he simply jumped right up on it and walked straight across the top to get there (and later, even rolled himself over it a couple times).
Playful antics set the tone for Finn’s New Haven performance Thursday night, with witty between-song banter and a sense of humor shining through a wide-ranging, 2+-hour set that showcased Finn’s serious songwriting skills.
The New Zealand recording artist drew from decades of musical gems, from Split Enz classics of the ‘80s (“One Step Ahead,” “I Got You”), to Crowded House tunes (including their biggest hit, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”), Finn Brothers stuff (the fuzzier “Suffer Never”), his vast solo career (the sultry “Sinner,” a standout) and collaborative projects, like Pajama Club (“From a Friend to a Friend”) ...
... the band Finn founded with his wife, bassist Sharon Finn, also playing bass on this tour.
Their son Elroy (pictured) extended the family affair onstage for an acoustic duo with dad (“Silent House”) and later on drums. Fleshing out the Finns’ sound with superb vocal harmonies was an outstanding backing band, including singer Lisa Tomlins, Jesse Sheehan on lead guitar, drummer Alistair Deverick, keyboardist Andrew Everding and Jimmy Metherell on acoustic guitar and percussion.
“I feel accepted in New Haven already!” Finn declared with a grin after a round of applause. It hadn’t been that long since Finn was in town, though in a different capacity — Finn presented a talk called “Unknown Pathways” as a guest speaker at one of the Yale Department of Psychiatry’s “Grand Rounds” in September 2012.
Aware that he was on Yale turf, he poked fun at academia. “Doctor” Finn talked about his honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato: “I didn’t have to do a damn thing for it. I can’t prescribe drugs or anything.” Someone there described his music as “mellifluous.”
“I should be able to use that word in New Haven, at Yale University.” He proceeded to work it in to comic effect whenever he could.
Finn even gave the educated crowd a vocab lesson, teaching the term “wowser” — New Zealand slang for a teetotaler or killjoy. He mused at which “Shubert” the theater was named after (Was it the shoemaker? The composer?), and praised whoever the “civilized” Shubert namesake was not only for providing a great staff who made the show run smoothly, but for allowing beer in the theater, and for not being a “mellifluous wowser.”
He thanked the rest of the crowd for being “smart, intelligent, warm.”
Back at the piano, a heartfelt, sparsely arranged performance of “Message to My Girl” highlighted Finn’s trademark, spot-on vocals, which have wowed fans for years and brought that night’s captivated crowd to its feet.
During an encore, Dr. Finn called for a “sociological experiment: Are there any sociologists in the crowd here at Yale University?” A smattering of psychiatrists in the house chimed in. Applause determined the crowd would rather hear “something different” than “a hit,” and Finn obliged with a vocals-only version of Crowded House’s “Fall at Your Feet.”
Backstage after the show, Joel Gelernter (the professor of psychiatry, genetics, and neurobiology at Yale who brought Finn in to do that “Grand Rounds” talk) and his family presented Finn with a framed photo from the talk, illustrated beautifully by daughter Rebecca. Gelernter told Finn that the video of his talk at Yale has gotten more hits on the website than one on the first human genome sequencing.
Finn graciously made time to stop and pose for photos with a handful of loyal Finn fans who’d waited nearly an hour outside on the sidewalk by the tour bus, before boarding and rolling on to Philadelphia.