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”.