|Photo by Russell Shakespeare|
A version of my review originally appeared at ocregister.com/entertainment/music.
“Best kept secret” is a term that often describes new or developing musicians. Yet it could also apply to Paul Kelly, despite a career that dates back to the early 1980s. The Aussie singer/songwriter is primarily known here for the ‘88 alt-rock radio hit “Dumb Things” and retains a moderate cult following.
Down Under, it’s a far different story. Kelly is considered a national treasure there, having racked up seven gold and two platinum-certified albums, a half dozen top 40 singles and eight ARIA awards (the equivalent to our Grammys). He’s also done multiple soundtracks, acting work and released several music-related books.
If there was any justice, Kelly would’ve rode in on a popularity wave that saw INXS and Midnight Oil find Stateside success. The fact that it didn’t happen is not too surprising though. Kelly doesn’t write the all-encompassing, big, sing along chorus. Traversing everything from rock and folk to R&B and bluegrass music territory over the years, Kelly excels at crafting bittersweet songs about relationships and his native land.
It’s a trait that was hit home early into his captivating two-hour set (plus intermission) on Wednesday night at the Hotel Café in LA.
Before doing the shimmering “Careless” (from 1989’s So Much Water So Close to Home), Kelly described the first time he heard “Cattle and Cain,” a popular 1983 single by fellow countrymen The Go-Betweens: “I was in my car and I had to pull over to the side of the road to listen. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.” I could say the same thing about Kelly’s 1996 heart-tugging track “How to Make Gravy,” about a family Christmas gathering seen through the eyes of an absent convict serving time.
Kelly made his first SoCal live appearance in more than four years to support Songs from the South, Volumes 1 & 2 (a 40-track career retrospective encompassing 1985-2008) that became available digitally in America last week and will have a physical CD release via RED Distribution on Oct. 25. Catalog reissues of all the out of print albums (except those on A&M Records) will be available early next year through Amazon Disc on Demand.
This brief tour marks the U.S. debut of Kelly’s unique A-Z acoustic shows, which he’s done sporadically elsewhere around the world since the mid-2000s. They can be heard on a new eight CD live box set and experienced within an accompanying book. (See www.paulkelly.com.au for purchasing info).
At the intimate Hotel Café (capacity 165), the musician’s nephew Dan Kelly - who has appeared on the last few albums by his uncle - provided impressive support on electric guitar, ukulele and backing harmony vocals. Paul Kelly basically stuck to playing acoustic guitar with one turn at piano. An easel displayed large letter cards that were replaced as he made his way through the 26 songs.
One of the most intriguing things about the A-Z concept was the anticipation factor: as the set progressed, you’d scroll through Kelly songs starting with a certain letter in your mind, wondering which would come next. Taking the small stage to the Monotones 1958 doo-wop hit, “Book of Love,” Kelly opened with “ Adelaide ,” an ode to his hometown. From there, Kelly told insightful stories – both humorous and serious - about the songs, admitted that placing certain selections in ABC order sometimes led to unintentional themes (religion, holidays) and seemed to be enjoying himself overall, especially on the more upbeat, rocking tunes.
Paul Kelly, Hotel Café, Los Angeles , Sept. 14, 2011
First set: Adelaide/Before Too Long/Big Fine Girl/Careless/Cities of Texas/Coma/Deeper Water/Down to My Soul/Dumb Things/Every F***ing City/Everything’s Turning to White/Foggy Fields of France
Second set: From St. Kilda to Kings Cross/Gift That Keeps on Giving/God Told Me To/Hard Love/How to Make Gravy/I Can’t Believe We Were Married/If I Could Start Today Again/I Wasted Time/I Was Hoping You’d Say That/Just Keep Coming Back for More (unrecorded, title approximate)/Look So Fine, Feel So Low
Encores: Love Never Runs on Time/Little Decisions