Paul Kelly at The Atheneum Theatre
For such a prolific artist, I'd have thought it would be easy to find a song or two with titles starting with each letter of the alphabet. But even Paul Kelly struggled when it came to Q.
It was night three of his four-night A-Z show. Melbourne's Atheneum theatre was packed (the line for the bar at interval was huge) with old and young alike. The two previous nights had seen Kelly make his way through Adelaide, Deeper Water, From Little Things Big Things Grow, How To Make Gravy, I Close My Eyes And Think Of You to Leaps And Bounds as he played two whole shows of songs, largely from his 18 albums, in alphabetical order.
Tonight, on the stage beside him and guitarist (and nephew) Dan Kelly, stood a sign with a large letter 'L'. Little Boy Lost was followed by Love Is The Law, Love Never Runs On Time and Luck before launching into the 'M's. When he realised that he forgot to update the 'L' sign, he apologised. The audience laughed, the first of many funny moments both in song and dialogue.
For Midnight Rain Kelly's girlfriend Sian Prior joined him on stage to provide backing vocals. The former opera singer added an extra layer to the song that enhanced the version as captured on the A-Z recordings. Maralinga is a quintessential example of Paul Kelly's ability to tell a story through song. As he told us before beginning the song, in the 1950s the government tested nuclear bombs in South Australia on the land of the Maralinga Tjarutja people. The people and the land were poisoned with plutonium and many people died or contracted diseases.
He also treated us to an a Capella version of Psalm 23, written by King David 3000 years ago, better known to his fans as Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air. Standing alone beneath a single spotlight dressed in a plain black suit and shirt, he looked humble and human. No You, from the 1989 So Much Water, So Close To Home album is more up-tempo and exhilarating than the sombre May Way… It's a great song with a killer guitar riff and evocative lyrics.
Night Watchman isn't on the A-Z Recordings, but it was one of the highlights of the show, if purely for the comic relief. Literally about a night watchman, Sian Prior again joined the Kelly's on stage, this time playing the clarinet. A beam of torchlight flitted around the dark theatre, followed by a night watchman (sound guy wearing a hat and pretending to creep around, peering through the dark). Another track absent on the recordings is Nukkanya, which means 'see ya' in an aboriginal dialect. Kelly explained how he came to be taught the word by a friend, who requested Kelly play the song at the funeral of her husband.
At "the big O," we heard Our Sunshine before Kelly replaced the 'O' placard with one saying 'intermission'. We bought a bottle of red and returned to the theatre with our glasses and anticipation for the second act.
My favourite 'O' song is Other People's Houses. From a young boy's perspective, it's an innocent glimpse into his life following his mother to other people's houses where she worked as a cleaning lady.
After a couple of 'P' songs came the challenging 'Q'. For this, Kelly used The Ballad Of Queenie And Rover and explained the difficulty of finding a 'Q' song. The sensual Randwick Bells was next. About a couple waking up at noon on a Saturday, Kelly begs for the character to come back to bed.
When we reach 'S', Saturday Night And Sunday Morning was first. Opening lyrics "She's a screamer but no one knows / Just the neighbours, me and her old boyfriends I suppose," made the audience laugh. Kelly has to wipe his head dry after this "saucy patch" of songs, he says.
After Shane Warne, he admits that he should probably write a few extra verses. "Shane's bigger than ever now. I need some extra lines about Hurley," he grins.
South Of Germany was performed a capella, Kelly again alone on the stage. He told us how it's the story of his aunt meeting a soldier in the south of Germany after word war two when she missed her train. They raised eight children together but, said Kelly: "I couldn't get all of the details to fit, so I had to exterminate one of the children."
Before he leaves the stage, he thanks by name the sound technicians, light guys, prompter and backstage hands, as well as Dan Kelly and Prior. But, to our delight he's back within moments for an encore consisting of Little Boy, Don't Lose Your Balls and Look So Fine, Feel So Low.
Essentially, the A-Z shows are an interesting concept that enables them to avoid monotony. For us fans, it gives us access to a whole lot of songs that are less well known and that would normally not be performed in favour of Kelly's bigger hits. Of course, he has so many great songs that whichever night you go to, it's impossible to avoid one of the more popular songs. Kelly is up there with Australia's best artists, and deservedly so.
Loved: Other People's Houses. I've never heard it live before. Oh, and the night watchman guy.
Hated: The fact that my favourite song starts with a 'D'.
Drank: Red wine and a beer or two (thanks Ev).