Arts Festival Review: Paul Kelly A-Z, Town Hall Concert Chamber

By Russell Baillie

3 comments
Paul Kelly. Photo / Supplied
Paul Kelly. Photo / Supplied

Paul Kelly has been here many times before.

Usually, he's popped across the Tasman with a musician or four behind him, playing to an audience who mostly discovered the singer-songwriter sometime in the 80s through albums which married the vivid storytelling of his lyrics to spare band arrangements mixing rock, country, folk and lots of guitar.

This time though he's cut down on the backing. But he's brought almost all his songs instead - one hundred of them, delivered alphabetically at a rate of 25 or so a night.

The A-Z show had its origins in a summer spiegeltent season in hometown Melbourne six years ago. Its subsequently has grown into a book (How to Make Gravy, in which Kelly elaborates on the songs and any other subjects) as well as a CD box set and even an app. All of which for the true Kelly-tragic, is far more rewarding than yet another best-of volume.

But - to quote Dumb Things, a second-half highlight - welcome strangers, to the show ...

a great show which on the first night of its Auckland Arts Festival season traversed A to E in Kelly's back catalogue, starting with his bittersweet ode to his birthplace Adelaide and ending with the Raymond Carver-inspired Everything's Turning to White.

That was before encores which managed to stay within the alphabetical restrictions, holding back After the Show to a fitting place in the reprise To be picky Kelly and sideman guitarist/nephew Dan, didn't play everything in Uncle Paul's book.

There was no Behind the Bowler's Arm. But with a compulsory reading of his heroic epic, Bradman, maybe one cricket song was enough.

And there was no Beggar on the Street of Love which he wrote for Jenny Morris, though there was Difficult Woman which he wrote for Renee Geyer (and survived to tell the tale).

But what was apparent from this stripped-back approach was that it held up Kelly's songs to the light and they sparkled anew.

The alphabetical sorting neatly balanced things out between old and more recent tunes, between the familiar and obscure and between songs that were autobiographical, fiction and non-fiction - or a combination of all of the above.

In between singing and flipping the big cards showing what letter we were at (nice typeface), Kelly offered anecdotes, which, despite having already been spun into that 600-page memoir, didn't sound well-worn.

And he didn't just stand there and play guitar all night either. Anastasia was delivered as an a cappella/harmonica one-two; Change Your Mind, a song with lyrics cribbed from other songs and which quotes Bic Runga's Sway, had him delicately prodding at the town hall Steinway.

Mostly though it was Kelly, his keening voice and guitar aided by young Dan's sweetly reverberating lead lines and and vocal harmonies.

There was occasional clarinet by his partner Sian Prior, which helped take the formerly reggae-powered Coma into klezmer territory, while her backing vocals gave Deeper Water an odd ethereal touch of the Dame Joans near the end.

Given the arts festival context, I did wonder if the minimalist show might have been enhanced by some supporting video - historical footage of Bradman; postcards from those Cities of Texas, photos of the late great fellow musicians he referred to in his introductions like Go-Between Grant McLennan and longtime guitarist Steve Connolly. That sort of thing.

But, of course, the pictures are all there in Kelly's A-Z. You just had to listen for them. And seeing and hearing Kelly's musical life flash before your ears is a film festival in itself. Further screenings come highly recommended.

What: Paul Kelly A-Z
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber until Saturday

- NZ Herald

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 29 Jul 2014 15:42:42 Processing Time: 329ms