"Does anyone know what denomination worshipped here?" Neil Finn asked the small but vociferous group of fans that came to see him perform at this converted church in suburban Detroit, its previous incarnation recalled by stained glass windows, cathedral ceiling and pew marks still on the floor. "Let's see if we can evoke a few ghosts."
Like most new solo artists, Finn knows plenty about ghosts. The singer-guitarist-songwriter has two decades of them -- first from Split Enz, the quirky New Zealand pop outfit for which he and older brother Tim formed a creative nucleus, and then from Crowded House, the more commercially successful band he led from 1985-96.
So Finn is a solo career newbie (though he did record one album as a duo with his brother in '95), but with his new album, Try Whistling This, and his first-ever solo tour show he's entered the fray enthusiastically, making up for a bit of lost time and cleansing himself from the experience of "a band where everyone tried to upstage each other all the time," as he good-naturedly referred to Crowded House during his one-hour and 50-minute performance.
Following a captivating opening set of ambient soul by label mate Morley (her debut hits stores Sept. 1 -- you'll want it), Finn and his four-piece band (including his 14-year-old son Liam, a brooding Nick Cave lookalike, on guitar and drums) wasted no time demonstrating his appetite for change while reassuring the crowd that he's still a slave to the well-crafted pop song. But craft leaves plenty of room for sonic enhancement, so Finn opened his show by picking up a bass and leading his group into the techno-flavored swirl of the new album's "Twisty Bass," switching microphones for clean and treated vocals.
It was a dramatic statement, a declaration of a creative ambition but with enough melody to assure the faithful that the evening would not be entirely unfamiliar. He needn't have worried. Though 11 of the night's 18 songs came from Try Whistling This, the fans were singing along with every chorus and cheerfully participating in call-and-response portions during "Faster Than Light" and "She Will Have Her Way." Finn didn't ignore his past, either, offering up Split Enz' "I Got You" as well as acoustic renditions of Crowded House's "Hole in the River," "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Four Seasons in One Day" -- the latter in response to a note tossed onstage by one fan.
That was a nice moment, as were Finn's many caustic comments and comic asides. Amiable and assured -- and playing some of the hottest guitar solos of his career -- Finn has clearly turned the ghosts of his past into allies of the present.