Neil Finn / Midlake Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto ON, April 5

Neil Finn / Midlake Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto ON, April 5
Photo: Shane Parent
Opening this show with a short, well-received set was Texan band Midlake, stripped down to an acoustic trio from their usual six-man line-up. Their sound featured strong vocal harmonies a la CSN, but was a touch mannered and light on melody. High marks to frontman Eric Pulido for his genuinely charming stage banter, though.

Perhaps he'd been taking lessons from Neil Finn, long one of the most relaxed and spontaneous performers around. Case in point: three songs in, after a vigorous rendition of Split Enz classic "One Step Ahead," New Zealand's biggest musical export tolds the audience that during the song he was thinking about one time he played it in Toronto, back in 1981: "That was the first night I ever ate sushi. Florian from Kraftwerk was at our table." Telling the audience "this feels like something of a homecoming as Toronto is the North American city I've spent the most time in" drew cheers, but they were already clearly all on his side.

This compelling and generous show (well over two hours long) confirmed Finn as an artist who still takes chances, just as he did when he disbanded Crowded House at the height of its success. His accessibly melodic and well-crafted songs may have become staples in supermarkets and on classic rock radio, but he's not resting on his laurels. On new solo album Dizzy Heights, he and co-producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips) experiment with different textures, soundscapes and vocal approaches.

The record doesn't quite have the impact of Finn's earlier work, but he reprised a large chunk of it here. Replacing the heavy use of strings and synths on the recorded versions with a more conventional band approach actually enhanced such new songs as "Dizzy Heights" and "White Lies And Alibis." Two other new songs, "Impressions" and "Flying In The Face Of Love," launched the set in atmospheric fashion.

Finn was backed by a sharp six-piece band that included wife Sharon on bass, and a strong-voiced female backing singer added a new dimension to some of his more familiar songs. From the solo piano treatment of sweet Split Enz hit "Message To My Girl" and Crowded House's "I Feel Possessed" to some full-on five guitars-led rock (as on earlier solo favourite "She Will Have Her Way"), Finn certainly cut a wide swathe, chronologically and stylistically. That emotionally resonant voice remains in top shape, and the (still rather youthful-looking) 55-year-old reaffirmed he's a fluent guitarist, too, even if some of his solos were a mite submerged in the mix.

Choosing Split Enz's biggest ever song, "I Got You," as the second encore guaranteed fans would rush to the front of the stage to dance along. That might have been a natural place to end things, but the crowd certainly didn't complain when it was followed by a high- energy take on Crowded House tune "Locked Out." They joyfully joined in to sing along to "Fall At Your Feet," and then again accompanied a solo Finn on "Pineapple Head," the finale of a memorable show. It was an eveningin which Finn proved that commercial success and artistic credibility are not mutually exclusive.

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