It’s a baking Adelaide night, the day’s heat still radiating upwards from the pavement as grey clouds tease the prospect of rain. The kind of backdrop that could match at least a dozen Paul Kelly songs, and a fine night to see another kind of dry spell break.
Although always touring and recording, recent collaborations and Shakespearean passion projects have made rollicking, full-band joyrides through his songbook a little rarer of late. With cracking new album Life Is Fine hitting #1 and a sold out Adelaide crowd, it’s clear many of his fans have been craving their return.
Life Is Fine’s quiet, Langston Hughes-written title track ushers in an opening suite of new material. The bass rumbles and piano chords loom heavy on the broodily evocative Rising Sun, and as Kelly and vocalists Vika and Linda Bull bellow the refrain “my whole heart jumped right out my chest”, it’s as arresting a moment as any in his back catalogue. The intensity serves as a sound foil to the breezily optimistic Finally Something Good, which, with its twinkling piano flourishes, climbing chorus and lines like “you’re long cool drink of water on a blazing summer’s day” is classic Kelly easily filed alongside older cuts like Careless.
Before too long Before Too Long appears, the first of many nationally beloved pop songs doled out across the night. Nearing the end of a lengthy international tour, Kelly and his band of long-time collaborators are as tight as ever. But with a seated audience in the Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre the songs rarely pull in enough energy from the room to capture the momentum of the smaller, rowdier band rooms they were originally written for. Their charm and staying power is well established, but it’s left to the newer material to be the revelation of the evening.
The Bulls have been stealing the show from Kelly for years, and it’s a service he clearly enjoys. Two Life Is Fine tracks pass lead vocals to the pair, with Vika’s My Man’s Got A Cold tackling the mythical man-flu with a ferocity that’s both tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious. Cut live by the same lineup, save for Adelaide-born nephew Dan Kelly subbing in for Ash Naylor, these songs aren’t only cut from the same cloth as Kelly’s best work but fit just as well too.
Peppering the night are some of Kelly’s subtler storytelling pieces, from 1999’s Ned Kelly ballad Our Sunshine to a special Ashes-eve rendition of Bradman. The highlight and set centrepiece however is seminal land rights anthem From Little Things Big Things Grow. As the harmonies of Kelly and the Bulls circle around the chorus refrain, it’s a moment that feels uncomfortably poignant set against the callous reception afforded by the Government to the landmark Uluru Statement.
If ever there was a song with end-of-night onstage love-ins baked into its DNA it’s the Traveling Wilburys’ Handle With Care, and opening acts Hannah Joy from The Middle Kids and legendary Texan Steve Earle reappear to close the set with a group singalong. Earle, who earlier threatened to upstage Kelly with little more than an acoustic guitar, sailor’s vocabulary and working knowledge of American forest fire fighting techniques plays Dylan to Kelly’s Tom Petty, while Joy and the Bulls stand in for Orbison.
Steve Earle supported Paul Kelly along with The Middle Kids
At one point in the night Kelly offers a glimpse behind the curtain as he excitedly explains the word ‘petrichor’. Describing the smell of earth after rain, it’s an evocative term long favoured by teenage Tumblr poets and CSIRO scientists alike. “I didn’t know it until recently,” he says, and, ever the magpie, quickly made a song of it. To my knowledge there’s no word for the buzz of satisfied Baby Boomers after a two hour communion with the soundtrack of Australia’s last few decades. But as they spill outside onto Port Road, at least it’s finally started to rain.
Paul Kelly performed at Adelaide Entertainment Centre on Wednesday, November 22
Paul Kelly will play once more night at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre before continuing his Australia/New Zealand tour
Photography: Andreas Heuer – AKPhotography