Shepherd’s Bush Empire – 9th September
Given the recent history of Shepherd’s Bush being a haven for London’s Antipodean travellers and longstanding residents it’s fitting that it proved to be the scene for the grand finale of Paul Kelly’s UK tour. A musical staple back in his homeland for the last thirty years to the point of verging on being a national treasure (good luck seeing him in a 1,800 capacity venue Down Under, never mind the 300-capacity venues he’s played on the rest of his British sojourn), he arrives on these shores fresh off the back of scoring his first number one album – at 62 years of age – with 25th offering, Life Is Fine.
A record which Kelly has himself described as unashamedly hopeful and upbeat, it takes centre stage during the show’s first third as it gets a full play-through to start the set. The record’s natural arc, with an early running awash with gusto, means Kelly and his merry band hit the ground running straight from the off by leading with the opening duo of the purposeful stomp of ‘Rising Moon’ and infectious soulful shuffle of ‘Finally Something Good’. Guitarist Ash Naylor’s quickfire guitar riff heralds ‘Firewood And Candles’, the album’s driving lead single which live gets turned into a headlong charge, while ‘Rock Out On The Sea’ (with its narrative on Marina Abramovic’s 1974 performance art piece, Rhythm 0) is awash with percussive, subversive cool. Life Is Fine marks the first time that Kelly’s had other people sing his songs on record, with longtime collaborators Vika and Linda Bull each taking a turn in the limelight. The former puts in a masterful performance on ‘My Man’s Got A Cold’, striking the tone of despair and condescension of a woman fed up of er her beau’s man-flu induced wallowing to perfection; Linda Bull’s own star turn on ‘Don’t Explain’ is equally impressive, her voice intertwining with Kelly’s during the choruses to rousing effect. Her cameo and the effortlessly charming – and shamelessly romantic – quasi-countrified lilt of ‘Josephina’ aside, the album’s second half is its more reflective and as it passes a reversed version of Stop Making Sense takes place as members, their work (temporarily) done, leave the stage. The evocative imagery of ‘Petrichor’ is played with minimal accompaniment, with the a soaring version of the gorgeous album-closing title track seeing just Kelly and his guitar bring the room to hushed reverence.
But however great the new record is (very) or how brilliantly it was played (likewise), it was only ever going to take second billing to Kelly’s extensive and much loved back-catalogue – the crowd’s reaction to being told of the evening’s format by the man himself early in proceedings only confirming as much. The fact that Kelly could afford to drop the legendary kitchen-sink drama ‘To Her Door’ – something approaching Australia’s unofficial second national anthem – two songs into his greatest hits victory lap shows the depth of catalogue he has; the fact it immediately incited an Empire-wide singalong a goosebump-inducing reminder of the continued unifying power of his music. From then on, it’s a quick-fire barrage of his greatest hits – ‘Before Too Long’ and ‘Dumb Things’ both take on contagious energy, the latter’s urgent, menacing swagger a particular standout. The cyclical, heartbreaking story at the heart of ‘Deeper Water’ becomes an rocking epic, the tale of an accused murderer at the heart of ‘God Told Me To’ taking on a purposeful muscularity. Vika Bull makes another star turn on ‘Sweet Guy’, Kelly’s first song written from the perspective of another person. Easing seamlessly into the role of a lover spurned, she concludes it during the song’s final stages by repeatedly lunging at Kelly and Naylor, the two in turn jumping backwards and cowering behind each other in a fine piece of comic theatre that successfully stays the right side of Benny Hill.
Not that a Paul Kelly greatest hits set is without its quieter moments. There’s a tenderness at the heart of the country waltz of ‘You’re 39, You’re Beautiful And You’re Mine’ and the rich sincerity of ‘Thank You’, while the underlying anguish at the heart of jailbird’s lament ‘How To Make Gravy’ is still inherently moving twenty years after release. Although it’s framed with healthy dose of humour (and is another to benefit from the crowd’s vocal abilities) there’s a bittersweet core to the tale of country-hopping attempts at relationship-rescuing in ‘Every Fucking City’. But it’s the more widescreen, upbeat songs that steal the show, and you can’t help but wonder what goes through Kelly’s mind as he plays ‘Careless’ and ‘Stories Of Me’ (two songs which bear a striking likeness to his pre-fame, early 1980s wilderness years, though he’ll be the first to contend his songs aren’t autobiographical) to a full theatre in the heart of London, with a euphoric, bouncing take on breakout hit ‘Leaps And Bounds’ helping bring things full circle.
The Kelly gang spend over two hours on stage playing with a sharpness and easy-going enjoyment of a band that have played together for a minimum of ten years – with some members clocking up nearly twice that – and a clear sense of energy and joy that belies the number of times they’ve been playing the songs over the years. They rally around Kelly during the evening’s only misstep, jamming to keep the show going as he forgets the words to ‘My Sunshine’ and needing a reminder from a lyrics-displaying phone from stage-side. But with 400 songs under his belt such lapses in memory can be forgiven, and however strange it feels to describe a 40-song set as rocket ride through his career, it nonetheless still leaves 90% of his work untouched. It’s a fact just as staggering as the evening was a celebratory success.
Life is fine, claims Paul Kelly on his new album. For two hours in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, irrespective of whatever ills were going on in the outside world, it has been. And so much more besides.