The Opera House, Wellington
Thursday, November 30
It was my first time seeing Paul Kelly in a decade and a half – and what a busy time it’s been for him, particularly post-2010. Writing his memoir and putting on the series of A-Z shows seems to have him fully revitalised, in the last few years he’s pumped out the albums and projects, everything from a gentle acoustic-based set of gorgeous songs and touring with Neil Finn to writing and arranging soul and gospel numbers for voices other than his own, a set of Shakespearean sonnets, a collaboration around funeral songs and then, just earlier this year, a return to the sorts of albums he pumped out in the 1980s, 90s and early 00s – Life is Fine is vintage Paul Kelly. Then again Paul Kelly is Vintage Paul Kelly.
But certainly he’s proud of the new album, understandably – and it was a solid run-through, taking to the stage for this show with the closing, title track first – just Kelly and guitar. From there he was joined by a fantastic band featuring long-serving rhythm section (Bill MacDonald on bass, Peter Luscombe on drums), Cameron Bruce on keys, the Bull sisters – Vika and Linda – on harmony and occasional lead vocals and his nephew Dan Kelly providing the gunslinger guitar leads. A perfect live unit – and what a luxury for them to have those songs to work with, what a luxury for Kelly to know he can leave these songs in such good hands.
So it was a handful of Life is Fine material to start – the album’s opener, Rising Moon, signalling the overall build (and mood) of the show.
Vika Bull took the lead for the ode to man-flu that Kelly wrote specifically for her delivery. My Man’s Got A Cold is one of the highlights of the brand new album and it’s likely to be a mid-set highlight any time she’s available to tour with Kelly. Her voice was superb and the droll lines can only work with this if sung by a woman – there are several slightly (deservedly) smug, tongue-in-cheek songs in Kelly’s catalogue. This is one of them. And it was one of the first songs on this night to really highlight just how good MacDonald and Luscombe are in support of the songs, a strong, supple, subtle rhythm section – solid-as but never even close to taking over.
There was certainly a feeling that the audience wanted the hits though – and before too long we had Before Too Long, and then keyboardist Cameron Bruce handled the high melody line on a gorgeous run through Careless. Here for the first of three separate occasions during the set I was close to tears. Such is the case with Paul Kelly’s music in my life – and the revelation I’ve had before but it felt so palpable on this night: There’s really nothing better in the world of pop songwriting than A Great Paul Kelly Song. Fortunately he only knows how to write Good and Great songs – there are no duds in his 20+ album career to date. But the gems, the standouts – on record and live – they’re just sublime. So perfectly crafted and yet with heart and soul so abundantly clear, never just a writing exercise, and yet within the worlds they occupy and reflect they could also be considered the very finest examples of pure songwriting exercises. Muscle flexed, goods delivered.
The new songs continued to tumble – and surprise – the jazz-inflected dark gloom of I Smell Trouble (with Kelly taking a seat at the keys), the loveliness in the lyrics of Letter In The Rain and Petrichor, the cleverness of writing a ‘sequel’ to Roy Orbison’s Leah, (not so) cleverly titled ‘Leah: The Sequel’.
Those songs were good enough, better than most will ever write but if patience was being tested for any in the crowd it was also rewarded.
Love Never Runs On Time. A perfect pop song. To Her Door – the very evocation of Raymond Chandler (a key source for Kelly) it’s efficient, “He took it pretty badly/She took both the kids” set-up line the rival of any great short-story, feel your heart bursting with vicarious pride as Deeper Water’s toe-in-the-water riff curls, then circles, then swells to support the anthem. Jesus, fuck, these are damn-good sosngs!
And, yes, though many called out for How To Make Gravy (“You’ve got wait, for Gravy, got to do your chores first, set the table…” Kelly stalled) when it arrived it was every bit as magical as it always is – to write that story, frame it with chords, that would be enough. To make it melodic – and danceable – well, that’s almost just showing off…
There was the big dumb fun of Dumb Things, more skilful, clever, silky, lovely pop songs (Song From The Sixteenth Floor and Look So Fine, Feel So Low) and then there were the moments where Linda Bull was given the lead (Don’t Explain) – or joined Kelly to place Shakespeare (Sonnet 18) into folk-song shape. Vika stormed the stage again with her Merri Soul Sessions rendition of earlier Paul Kelly hit, Sweet Guy. The Bull Sisters combined to play an ode to sixties girl-groups, Down On The Jetty (also from Merri Soul) and there were songs from now seemingly forgotten (but great) “mid-period” albums (a solo acoustic encore of Saturday Night Sunday Morning from 1998’s Words and Music and the simply lovely Midnight Rain from 2001’s …Nothing But A Dream) that would be the equal of many others’ best efforts at writing a great song. There they were, in the set too, couched by the very best of his band new and very old songs.
A songwriting master, with enthusiasm still, with heart – clearly. And with so much energy and passion for music, cribbing a line from Dylan here, rewriting Orbison there, adding so many great words of his own to the canon still and always. The music, too, so good, little rockabilly shuffles and licks, gospel and bluegrass inflections, country-soul and barroom balladry.
A generous two-hour plus set and two opening acts, the lively, rollicking good-time charm of The Eastern and some earnest acoustic duo tunes from Australia’s Busby Marou – well it was hard to fault. Kelly’s set was the equal of anything I’ve seen this year, and that’s a year of many Lifetime Best Shows (from PJ Harvey to Bill Frisell, Patti Smith to Midnight Oil) and overall it was the best I’ve heard him, the best representation of where he’s at right now. If anyone was asking for anything more from this king of the castle of Australian songwriting they’d deserve to be told, and rightly so, that they were bloody dreaming…