Paul Kelly presented Making Gravy at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on Friday, 9th December. Dylan Hyde reviews.
Paul Kelly has added a new date to the holiday calendar in this country: his annual Making Gravy show, the fourth iteration of which took place at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl two weeks prior to Christmas.
It has been forty years since I first saw Paul Kelly stumbling across the stage clad in tight black leather entangling himself in guitar cables. Some years later, I saw Kelly supporting Bob Dylan on his Australian tour, an opportunity that must live in Kelly’s memory given his worship of Dylan.
Both Kelly and Dylan are distinctively personal voices, vividly conjuring the exigencies of the human condition with a unique tenderness. There is perhaps no sweeter and more saccharine example than the narrative of Kelly’s song ‘How to Make Gravy’ – now an Australian Christmas hymn – about separation and social isolation. Kelly sings of universal sorrow, a family separated at Christmas. Everyman Joe banged up inside, yearning for Christmases past.
Paul Kelly – ‘How to Make Gravy’
Kelly arrived onstage to loud applause and set the festive tone with a version of Ron Sexsmith’s ‘Maybe This Christmas’ (from his Christmas record, Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train), followed by a very personal and heartfelt acknowledgement of Country.
The performance traversed decades of his music, stretching back thirty-seven years to ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’ from his debut solo album, Post. After belting out the Melbourne anthem, ‘Leaps and Bounds’, Kelly paid tribute to his early collaborator, the late guitarist Steve Connolly.
Kelly remains a generous and modest servant of two masters: his band of musicians and vocalists (aka his Boon Companions), and his audience, for whom he has genuine affection. His attentions switch between both. Unlike Dylan, he addresses his audience frequently with authentic warmth.
Homages to the fallen this year included Olivia Newton-John. Kelly and Jess Hitchcock sang “probably her only murder ballad,” ‘Banks of the Ohio’, with Alice Keath on banjo. A tribute to Judith Durham, ‘The Carnival is Over,’ performed by Jess Hitchcock, finished the band’s first encore set. Kelly introduced the song by recalling a performance by The Seekers in front of a remarkable 200,000 people at the same venue. Hitchcock’s voice soared in a key much like Durham herself.
‘Dumb Things,’ one of those songs that is always elevated as a live number, had the crowd on their feet, followed by the familiar opening chords of ‘How to Make Gravy’. In the stalls, the crowd sat back down either spent or in quiet reverence. On the lawn above, they danced and loudly sang along.
Kelly introduced ‘Our Sunshine,’ a song about Ned Kelly, with a tender potted history of the Irish-Australian everyman, its title being the moniker Ned’s father gave him and the name of Robert Drewe’s semi-fictional novel about Ned. ‘To Her Door’ brought the crowd back to their feet, loudly chanting with Kelly, who beamed from ear to ear.
Paul Kelly – ‘To Her Door’
On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Redfern speech by former Prime Minister Paul Keating, Kelly paid a very moving tribute to his dear friend and collaborator, Uncle Archie Roach, who he described as a “poet, songwriter and philosopher”. Introducing ‘Rally Round the Drum’, co-written with Roach, Kelly spoke of Uncle Archie’s time as a tent boxer, struggling to exorcise his pain as a child who was stolen from his mother and father.
Before ‘A Bastard Like Me’, accompanied by Jess Hitchcock, Kelly gave a long introduction to its subject, Charlie Perkins, an agitator for justice for Indigenous Australians, who wore the title of the song with pride. The song reminds us that Donald Horne’s description of Australia as “the lucky country” was intended as a reproach, not a commendation.
Hitchcock joined Kelly on ‘Everyday My Mother’s Voice’, a soaring, affecting anthem about the courage and battles of Indigenous footballer Adam Goodes. It’s a formidable song about the weight of expectation foisted on a single man to represent his mob and draw attention – as Goodes felt compelled to do – to the racism still so endemic in this country.
Kelly finished the main set flanked by members of the evening’s support acts, Alex the Astronaut, The Beths, and Amyl and the Sniffers (a tour de force live). They performed the song Kelly wrote with Kev Carmody, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, beautifully elevated with the addition of a didgeridoo player.
Paul Kelly – ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’
The band returned for two encore sets. As the near full moon rose above the Bowl, they launched into the sweet ‘Rising Moon’ from the album Life is Fine, a song co-written with Billy Miller. The pair have written a few songs together while watching test cricket on television. When Kelly acknowledged Miller sitting in the stalls before playing ‘Firewood and Candles’ (another co-write), he apologised for dragging him away from the night session of the Adelaide Test.
The second encore began with the punchy ‘Darling It Hurts’, but the final song was somewhat of a surprise. Rather than a familiar Kelly crowd-pleaser, it was a cover of The Drifters’ ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’, a tribute to an old standard first recorded in 1960; the sort of song Bob Dylan might well finish his live set with.
The band – made up of long-standing collaborators Dan Kelly on guitar, Bill McDonald on bass, Peter Luscombe on drums, Cameron Bruce on keys and Ash Naylor (now also a member of The Church) on lead guitar – were as virtuosic as ever.
Age has not wearied Paul Kelly. He characteristically exceeded two hours of stage time. His performances, of which I’ve seen countless, never disappoint. “Authentic” is the way my daughter described Paul Kelly, having seen him for the first time, as we left. I can think of no more eloquent description.