Why Crowded House’s live comeback was a sorely needed shining light in 2016

Screengrab via ABC

Six years is a pretty long dry spell for a band who are still officially together, especially when it’s a band as beloved as Crowded House. To break it on the 20th anniversary of their iconic ‘farewell’ show, in the same spot, is a pretty great recipe for a memorable run of shows, and it’s no surprise that fans came from around the world. Throughout the forecourt there were punters from all over Australia and beyond, many doing multiple nights and arriving hours early for prime positions amongst familiar faces, chatting and at times reuniting as the afternoon sun faded.

It was great watching them react to Kirin J Callinan, who’s about as unique and entertaining as Sydney acts go. By the end of his sets he’d won over most, and with a similarly theatrical spirit to much of the wonderful New Zealand scene that birthed Split Enz, it’s no surprise that the Finns are big fans and occasional collaborators. Even so, the warmth he received from the headliners – from various members side of stage during his set, to generous, nightly callouts from Neil Finn – was evident and lovely.

Ultimately, though, they’d all spent hours clustered at the front of the stage for Crowded House, and their devotion was well rewarded. With the tour being a seemingly one-off, four-night victory lap, they could’ve played these shows very straight, with a well-rehearsed, crowd-pleasing run of hits. But Crowded House aren’t that band, and each show was so much better for it. From Friday’s rendition of ‘Not The Girl You Think You Are’, to Saturday’s unrehearsed, on-request ‘Now We’re Getting Somewhere’, to Sunday’s ecstatic ‘Recurring Dream’, which finally came after several days of soundcheck teasers, each night had their own unique setlist, full of fomo-inducing moments and fan-servicing favourites. 

“Amid a year dominated by bad news and division, these shows felt like wonderful shared experiences”

But the setlists only tell part of the story, and what really made each show feel memorable was the straight-up joy coming from the stage. Crowded House have never been aloof performers, but there was such a potent sense of generosity and playfulness to each of the shows that made for so many unplanned, unguarded moments. At times they were goofy and fun, like a mid-song monologue about The Velvet Underground, and tour spooning during ‘Sister Madly’.

Other times, there were disarmingly beautiful moments, like Saturday’s rendition of ‘Private Universe’. Somehow, it timed perfectly with far-off fireworks, escalating into full flight just as the night sky lit up with the fireworks’ peak. Several songs earlier, they’d been a lot quieter and given the show one of its most intimate, beautiful moments with ‘Into Temptation’.

Regardless of the material they sounded incredible, with spontaneity matched by wonderful playing and a seemingly instinctive interplay between everyone on stage. Neil Finn was in particularly fine form, his voice as strong as ever and his oft-underrated guitar playing reminding us that he’s as good a frontman as he is a songwriter. Nick Seymour was hilarious and warm, and the way him and Neil shared the stage suggested that they’d missed Crowded House as much as the rest of us.

And bloody hell, what a band, and what a catalogue. Crowded House have hits for days. Having them performed on the steps of the Opera House is as close as Australian live music gets to a sure bet – even with the baffling and often noticable sound restrictions infamously placed on the site, driven by a handful of affluent, vocal harbourside residents. Every night was bookended by ‘Mean To Me’ and ‘Better Be Home Soon’, and the hits between didn’t stop coming. ‘Fall At Your Feet’, ‘Something So Strong’, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, ‘Distant Sun’, ‘World Where You Live’ – so many iconic songs came out every night and were greeted like anthems. And the Woodface material was played complete with its beloved, brotherly harmonies, with Tim Finn joining for tracks like ‘It’s Only Natural’, ‘Weather With You’ and ‘Four Seasons In One Day’.

If that feels like an exhaustive list of hits, it’s not – there were plenty more throughout each night’s near-two and a half hour set, and they were all greeted like anthems. Crowded House’s songs are embedded in our cultural DNA, and amid a year dominated by bad news and division, these shows felt like wonderful shared experiences. It’s an amazing feeling being outdoors with people who’d travelled from around the world, belting out choruses like a church choir, and there are few bands who can conjure that universal atmosphere like Crowded House.

Sometimes, the measure of a good show is how you relate to the music afterwards… whether you’re compelled to listen more, or whether you move on, the itch having been scratched. If the sentiment around inner Sydney is anything to go by, from social media trends to car stereos to pub conversations, these were treasured nights. Hopefully it’s not another six years before we experience it again.

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Check out the full Sunday night concert on ABC iView.