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Music Review: Paul Kelly More Songs from the South Concert at the Civic Theatre, Newcastle

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Paul Kelly
Civic Theatre, Newcastle NSW, Australia
15 May 2009

Australia tends to resist the notion of “cultural icons” and hero worship. We collectively cut down our tall poppies and our biggest stars tend to go overseas for mega-fame. But if you had to pick someone that summed up the national psyche; someone that just about everyone claims to love when you mention his name, it would be Paul Kelly.

Not only is he modest, unassuming (no tricks, no lasers, no hotpanted synthesizer), and low keyed, he's also about as talented a musician as you'll find. It's almost impossible not to like him. His latest tour is geared around his new CD, Songs from the South II, the second in a greatest hits compilation that spans Kelly's 35 plus year career in Australian music. The number of hits is no surprise to anyone who has been following Kelly's music, but it's an absolute treat to hear him play all those great numbers live.

The show was opened by Charlie Parr, whose funny self-effacing spiel (“back home, I usually play dives”; “you expect a professional in a nice place like this”) was such a contrast to his take no prisoners finger work that I began to suspect he was a superstar in disguise (maybe Alvin Lee or Jerry Garcia). He played and sang a series of  bluesy bluegrass numbers on a gorgeous rooster backed national guitar that he claimed was broken, ending in a trio of “murder blues”. His version of the Blind Willie McTell song “Delia” was good enough to make Dylan jealous. This twangy, funny, and very talented opening was a fitting warm up for Kelly, who did one number with Parr and his guitar slider later in the evening.

As for Kelly, so ubiquitous is his music to the Australian psyche and so accessible, that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was simple (and I've read a few reviews that suggested that). Seeing him live makes you realise just how much talent lies behind the catchy songs that nearly everyone in the audience was able to sing along with. For anyone that imagines Kelly a staid, quiet performer, the show was a revelation as he danced, jumped, howled, ululated, and sang, clearly inspired by the incredible vocals of Vika Bull, who added an original kick to the show without taking the focus away from Kelly. Her versions of “Everything's Turning to White”, and “Sweet Guy” had the hairs on my arms standing on end. The choice of music was well balanced, moving between soft finger picking ballads: “They Thought I was Asleep”, the brilliant Christmas song “How to Make Gravy”, or “When I First Met Your Ma”, to the hard driving beat of “Darling it Hurts”, “Dumb Things”, or “Love is the Law”.

Kelly's interaction with his band members and the audience was warm and casual. Local boy Cameron Bruce, the “highest singer in the band” had a terrific solo opening on “Love Never Runs on Time”, while Ashley Nayor's lead guitar was so well integrated with Kelly's that it was often hard to tell who was playing. Naylor had some brilliant solos though throughout the concert, at times panting from the intensity of it. As for Paul, he changed guitars after each song, and had so many different ones throughout the show that one member of the audience shouted “How many guitars ya got Paul?”. His harmonica too was in full force, whining and crying in perfect sync with his voice and fingers.

The whole thing moved along through two hours of music and multiple encores, ending with a well staged exit, one band member at a time; finishing with the light drumwork of Peter Luscombe. All in all, this was a brilliant show, full of balance, high energy fun, exquisite musicianship, and the deep introspection that we've come to expect from Kelly's considerable oeuvre.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.