He’s my favourite artist of forever. The last time I saw him (other than at Hobart airport when I had to move Kramstable, who was dancing round, totally oblivious to the fact that he was between most people and the bathrooms, out of Mr Kelly’s way en route to said bathroom) was in February 2011 at the Theatre Royal when I caught the final of his A to Z series of shows with Dan Kelly.
I’ve missed the last couple of tours he’s done in Hobart for various reasons (I can’t remember, probably something lame, I don’t like crowds or big festivals) and said to Slabs that next time he comes, I don’t care what the show is, I’m going.
One thing I love about Mr Kelly is that he is constantly changing his act. if he’s not making new material, he’s reinventing old material or someone else’s material to make it his. He’s made soundtracks (Everynight Everynight, Jindabyne); he’s turned his music bluegrass (Uncle Bill, The Stormwater Boys); he’s made up bands to experiment with different styles of music (Professor Ratbaggy, Stardust 5); he’s been in a musical (One Night the Moon); he’s performed his material with a band, acoustically, and then with another band, and then another one. He’s done soul music (The Merri Soul Sessions); he’s combined with Neil Finn to produce one of the most divine musical experiences I have ever witnessed (Goin’ Your Way). He’s even put Shakespeare to song. He has collaborated with too many musicians to count on their albums and on his own.
He has been part of my life since late high school when I discovered Under The Sun for the first time, his 1987 follow-up album to Gossip. These were the days of cassettes, and my friend Graeme lent me his copy. These were also the days of the double cassette player, so I’m sure you know the story here.
Funds were limited, and Gossip was a double album with 24 tracks for only a couple of bucks more than the standard length Under The Sun, and in those days my focus was on the number of tracks I was getting for my dollar, not necessarily whether they were my favourite tracks, so I dutifully purchased Gossip on cassette for $13.99.
I didn’t actually have a double cassette player. I remember wanting one, but the budget I had for a portable stereo allowed either for a double cassette player or a single with removable speakers and a graphic equaliser. (These babies were expensive back then too, not $50 like they are now.) Rationally, I figured that removable speakers were much more important because I’d be able to set them up around me, and several of my friends already had double cassette players, so I didn’t actually need one.
Graeme was kind enough to lend me Under The Sun, even after the previous cassette he’d lent me, one of those Hot Hits of 198X or 198X with a Bullet compilations, had been shredded in a double cassette deck after being unable to cope with the strains of Baltimora’s Tarzan Boy. Most people would probably not see this as a bad thing, but I still went out and replaced it for him, thereby parting with the money I could have used on Under The Sun in the first place. That’s karma for you right there.
Needless to say I am now the legitimate owner of Under the Sun on CD, along with most of Mr Kelly’s back catalogue of released work, with the possible exception of some limited edition material I never quite managed to justify getting.
His most recent release accompanies the current tour. It’s called Death’s Dateless Night. It’s an album he recorded with Charlie Owen, slide guitarist extraordinaire, conceived out of a discussion they’d had driving to a friend’s funeral about songs they had played at funerals.
To anyone who isn’t an avid collector of Mr Kelly’s music and is mostly familiar with his more commercial work, this album might not appeal. It’s very mellow, as you’d expect. Contemplative, reflective.
Only two of the songs are written by Mr Kelly – Nukkanya (from the 1994 album Wanted Man) and Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air (from Foggy Highway, which he recorded with Uncle Bill in 2005), so if you’d hoped for a reinterpretation of his own songs you’d probably be disappointed. The album includes some classics, like Don’t Fence Me In, and Leonard Cohen’s Bird On A Wire, which seems particularly appropriate, given Mr Cohen died last week. There is a lovely track called Good Things, which was written by former member of Mr Kelly’s band the Dots, the late Maurice Frawley, as well as a version of Let It Be, which is a Beatles song I have never liked all that much.
It’s not a big “jump out and grab you” album. It’s one that sits there, grows on you and subtly reminds you that (in the words of Kasey Chambers) we’re all going to die someday. It’s deliberately understated. Mr Kelly says:
We kept the sound live and sparse, just the two of us, except for the occasional vocal by family members – my sister Mary Jo and my daughters Maddy and Memphis. I stuck to singing and playing acoustic guitar. Charlie was the swing man, playing dobro, lap steel, electric guitar, synthesizer and piano. I managed to talk him into singing some harmonies too.
So this is the show that I’ll be going to see next week. The shows are all being played in churches and cathedrals, and not having set foot in one of these places since possibly a wedding I attended in 1999 (and a couple of minor churches in the UK, you know, like Salisbury Cathedral and St Paul’s), I think it will feel weird to sit in St David’s Cathedral to see a show.
I’ve been listening to the album over the past few days so I’m familiar with the material when I see the show.
Speaking to someone earlier in the week who said they didn’t really like this album inspired me to revisit Mr Kelly’s back catalogue and create my own playlist of alternatives to the greatest hits that people who are mostly familiar with his better-known material might not have heard. That is, my favourite songs that you can’t find on Songs from the South (Volumes 1 or 2).
I tried to include at least one track from each Mr Kelly’s albums, and the only criteria were (a) I had to like the song and (b) the song (or the version of it in a couple of cases) wasn’t included on Songs From The South. I haven’t included work from soundtracks like Funerals and Circuses, Jindabyne, Conversations with Ghosts etc as I haven’t listened to these enough. I did look at his work with the Dots (I know he has disassociated himself from this work, but I do like some of the songs. They are very much of their time.)
This is the playlist.
Want You Back (Paul Kelly and the Dots, Talk, 1981.)
Alive And Well (Paul Kelly and the Dots, Manila, 1982.)
Blues For Skip (Paul Kelly, Post, 1985 – I can remember hearing him play this live at the ANU Bar in the 1990s and not being familiar with it at all. It really struck me.)
Gossip (Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, Gossip, 1986 – I love this song but it was left off the original CD release.)
Forty Miles To Saturday Night (Paul Kelly and the Messengers, Under The Sun, 1987 – this evokes memories of the end of school. A great time and one of my favourite of his songs.)
You Can’t Take It With You (Paul Kelly and the Messengers, So Much Water So Close To Home, 1989. You really can’t.)
Don’t Start Me Talking (Paul Kelly and the Messengers, Comedy, 1991 – a follow up to Gossip perhaps?)
Little Boy Don’t Lose Your Balls (Paul Kelly and the Messengers, Comedy, 1991 – this is about exactly what the title says. Probably don’t play this one to your mum unless she doesn’t care if you say fuck. It has a hidden track at the end on the album.)
Hey Boys (Paul Kelly and Mark Seymour, Garbos Soundtrack, 1992 – this is just great! I know I’ve seen the movie. I can’t remember it. Mark Seymour is of course, former lead singer of Hunters and Collectors.)
Reckless (Paul Kelly and the Messengers Hidden Things, 1992 – Hidden Things was an album of rarities and previously unreleased tracks from 1986 to 1991. Reckless is a song by Australian Crawl. In this version you can understand the lyrics.)
She’s Rare (Paul Kelly, Wanted Man, 1994 – Mr Kelly’s first album post The Coloured Girls/Messengers. I like its funkiness.)
Maybe This Time For Sure (Paul Kelly, Wanted Man, 1994.)
Anastasia Changes Her Mind (Paul Kelly, Deeper Water, 1995 -this track is cool. The “kiss on the mirror” line was inspired by a time Mr Kelly’s then wife went on a trip and left a lipstick kiss on their’s daughters’ bedroom mirror that stayed there fore months. Fascinating to think that a little thing like that could get mixed up with a a girl who fell in love and cancelled her travel plans. The title track of this album makes me cry.)
Madeleines’s Song (Paul Kelly, Deeper Water, 1995 – written for his daughter Madeleine.)
Beat Of Your Heart (Paul Kelly, Words and Music, 1998 – this song includes vocals by Renee Geyer and Rebecca Barnard, as well as musicians that Mr Kelly had either been working with and/or continued to work with with over the next few years including Bruce Haymes on keyboards, Peter Luscombe on drums, Shane O’Mara on guitar, Steve Hadley on bass and Spencer P Jones on guitar. I love the beat of this one.)
Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (Paul Kelly, Words and Music, 1998.)
Sydney From A 747 (Paul Kelly and Uncle Bill, Smoke, 1999 – a mix of old and new Paul Kelly songs given the bluegrass treatment with Melbourne band Uncle Bill. This song was originally called Sydney From A 727 when it appeared on the 1991 album Comedy. The plane got bigger over the years.)
Taught By Experts (Paul Kelly and Uncle Bill, Smoke, 1999.)
Coma (Professor Ratbaggy, Professor Ratbaggy, 1999 – released at the same time as Smoke, this was a side project with Steve Hadley, Bruce Haymes and Peter Luscombe. This song was written by all four band members, as were most of the tracks on this album. It was released as a single, but it was Love Letter that made it onto Songs from the South.)
One Night The Moon (Memphis Kelly, Kaarin Fairfax, Paul Kelly, One Night The Moon, 2001 – from the movie One Night The Moon directed by Rachel Perkins, which tells the story of a missing child (played by Paul Kelly and Kaarin Fairfax’s daughter Memphis Kelly), the indigenous tracker (Kelton Pell) who searches for her, and her parents played by Mr Kelly and Ms Fairfax.
This Land Is Mine (Paul Kelly, Kelton Pell, One Night The Moon, 2001 – explores the difference in attitude between the missing girl’s father, played by Paul Kelly, who “owns” the land, and indigenous tracker Albert Yang (Kelton Pell) who is “owned” by the land.)
I Wasted Time (Paul Kelly, …Nothing But A Dream, 2001)
To Be Good Takes A Long Time (Paul Kelly, Ways & Means, 2004 – the backing band was called the Boon Companions and included Mr Kelly’s nephew Dan Kelly, Peter Luscombe, Dan Luscombe and Bill McDonald.)
Your Loving Is On My Mind (Paul Kelly, Ways & Means, 2004.)
You’re Learning (Paul Kelly and the Stormwater Boys, Foggy Highway, 2005 – a bluegrass album featuring some old Paul Kelly songs and some new ones, as well as this cover version of a song by American country artists Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin, which features Kasey Chambers on vocals.)
Zoe (Stardust Five, Stardust Five, 2006 – a side project of Paul Kelly, Dan Kelly, Dan Luscombe, Peter Luscombe and Bill McDonald and this track features the vocals of Mr Kelly’s then-partner Sian Prior as well as (I think) Dan Luscombe.)
The Lion And The Lamb (Paul Kelly, Stolen Apples, 2007 – the last album to feature the Boon Companions and is described as having a “biblical” theme. I don’t know this album very well but I like this song.)
For The Ages (Paul Kelly, Spring And Fall, 2012 – this album came after the 2010 release of Mr Kelly’s epic 8 CD live box set of The A to Z Recordings and his 500+ page “mongrel memoir” How To Make Gravy, and a lot of tours, including the show I saw in 2011. This album features Dan Kelly on guitar.)
Before Too Long (Paul Kelly and Neil Finn, Goin’ Your Way, 2013 – This was a series of concerts that Paul Kelly and Neil Finn did in March 2013 where they performed tracks from their careers and re-interpreted each other’s work. One of the concerts was live-streamed and it was one of the most wonderful events I have ever seen. I love this version of Before Too Long, and Zoe Hauptmann’s bass is just magnificent on this track. There is a fabulous version of For The Ages as well.)
Hasn’t It Rained (Paul Kelly, The Merri Soul Sessions, 2014 – an album recorded with artists including Vika and Linda Bull, Dan Sultan, Kira Puru and Clairy Browne, with Paul Kelly rarely featuring on vocals. I loved this album, but apparently during the tour some people were disappointed because they were expecting a “Paul Kelly” show, and they got Merri Soul. It always pays to check, because a Paul Kelly show might not be a “Paul Kelly” show.)
Sonnet 73 (Paul Kelly, Seven Sonnets and a Song, 2016 – again one that wasn’t for everyone. This was Mr Kelly’s tribute to William Shakespeare, and was released on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April 2016. It features Paul Kelly and a collection of musicians including Vika and Linda Bull, Lucky Oceans, Alice Keath, and his band (Peter Luscombe, Bill McDonald, Ash Naylor and Cameron Bruce) singing seven sonnets put to his own music and Vika Bull singing Sir Philip Sidney’s “My True Love Hath My Heart”. I found it curious and compelling.)
Good Things (Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen, Death’s Dateless Night, 2016 – and here we are back where we started with Maurice Frawley’s song, although he wasn’t with the Dots for their first album.)
I could have kept going, but I had to draw the line somewhere, so it’s 32 tracks. One hour 46 minutes. It’s a bit long for a mix tape so I’ll have to cut it down so I can dub it on my double cassette deck. Ha.
I’d love to know what you think of my choices, and if you have your own alternative (to the) Paul Kelly greatest hits playlist, please share!