Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Paul Kelly Alone
(Photo credit Ms. Caren Jeskey)
Outside Paul Kelly's native Australia, the mention of this troubadour's name elicits one of two responses among people: 1) "Who?" 2) "I love Paul Kelly." Those of us in the second category know every line of three of his most widely distributed albums: Gossip (1986), Under the Sun (1987) and So Much Water So Close to Home (1989).
On January 17, Paul Kelly appeared on the stage of The Old Town School of Folk Music alone, with an acoustic guitar and a bag of harmonicas. He announced that this was his first live show of the tour in support of Spring and Fall, a cycle of eleven songs released (internationally, unlike his albums between 1989 and now) in November 2012 and that he would try to do the entire album first. The first ten songs chronicle a love affair that lasts less than a year, the eleventh one a coda that shows us the middle-aged narrator-protagonist a few years after the break up, suffering from "little aches and pains." After the three-and-a-half seasons distilled into about forty minutes, Paul sang us a selection of songs from his previous sixteen albums, ignoring, as usual, his first two albums from '81 and '82 that he'd rather everyone forget ever existed. But check out "Alive and Well" from '82. Sure, I'm biased, but that sounds great, and I'm digging the punky look (though I'm glad he discovered food later in life).
As opposed to the charmingly awkward skeletal spaz in the video for "Alive and Well," Paul Kelly is now a veteran comfortable with the fact that he'll forget a chord change and then quickly recover, with a disarming smile, and that an audience member will have to remind him what the opening line of an old song is.
He's never been a guitar hero or "the voice" anyway. And he never forged radical new paths as a songwriter. What he does is pick up select threads from the traditions of pre-recording-technology folk, pre-90s rock, and poetry going back to at least the British Renaissance, and he weaves the tightest yet supplest sonic and poetic bolt of fabric he then uses to fashion new songs and deliver them without pretension or forced eccentricity. That makes his best songs perfect and the rest really really good. They are typically brief, composed of simple open-chord progressions upon which the singer builds stories about characters dealing with relationships, family, hardship and triumphs, enduring and causing pain, sharing joy, the gamut. These stories are mostly set in Australia, and thanks to Paul Kelly I've learned a bit about places, things, and people like Adelaide (fifth largest Aussie city; my geography classes covered maybe only the top four: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth), MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground), Silver Top (taxi company), the Buttery (rehab center), Vincent Lingiari (freedom fighter).
You'll get each song when you first hear it, that's how transparent the words and music are, how much you can relate to the characters and narratives depicted, and how convincing a conduit Paul Kelly is, but then you'll keep listening to those songs for decades, and never get tired of them. How come? Because every syllable is there for a reason, nothing extra to dangle and distract.