Saturday, May 2, 2009

From Big Things

I've always been a firm believer in a person identifying deeply with a genre or style of art: it's an intrinsic part of our being. Not the artistic vehicle (ie, music, film, stage, etc) as such, but the overall genre, field and intent of the art. I can totally appreciate, for example, the pure bliss of the escapism science-fiction can hold for people. I can admire those who immerse themselves so fully in soap operas, no matter the abject absurdity it brings. For me, however, it's the mirror-to-the-world honesty of heart-felt storytelling which gives me that pit-of-the-stomach resonance with anart form . And so I immediately identify with singer-songwriters as a whole, and straight-talking novelists who 'speak my tongue'; those who actively seek out the beauty in the mundane and find a deeper meaning in the process.

I'm also a proponent of the idea that many people will look towards a select few artists in their lifetime whom they truly hold dear as experts of their craft. Be it Speilberg, Spelling or The Strokes, people will latch on to a touchstone artist which will tap into that special place deep in our psyche. We continually turn to those touchstones as a reference point throughout our lives. It's why I will make a point of seeking out the literary works of, say, Andrew McGahan, Irvine Welsh, Alan Duff and John Birmingham (apart from his alternate reality guff :-) as a way to remind myself of the simple art of lovely storytelling. In music, I have a very similar bent and while I venture far and wide in my musical discoveries, will constantly lead myself back to my touchstone artists in order to give myself an effective reference point. These artists are fairly obvious for most - Pearl Jam, The Frames, The Go Betweens, Jeff Lang and, QPAC's guest this week, Paul Kelly.

Before the main event, however, was a new discovery in my world. Sitting alone and seemingly lost in the massive bare space of the Concert Hall's stage was US swampy blues man Charlie Parr. His gorgeous finger-picked resonator guitar sung beautifully to fill the space, but his muddy vocals and oftenexaggerated and ill-conceived stomp-boxing made it hard to really penetrate to appreciate what was going on. That, and the massive space between the nose-bleed seats and the stage, meant it was hard to feel a connection to something as relatively intricate as Parr's style. He doesn't disappoint, really, and sustains my intrigue for the full 40 minute set, but whether by design or circumstance, fails to fully engage his audience.

As Kelly strides out with his trusty band, it's almost an immediate wave of euphoria enveloping me which doesn't let up until many hours after the gig (and is still giving slight aftershocks with memory). The hall is the perfect venue for such an artist. Every ping, every note, every nuance can be heard amongst the deafening roars of some of his greatest hits. When it comes to touchstones, there are hardly any better than this right now. Superb stories, told in mesmerising ways, by fully accomplished musicians on impeccable equipment and set in a wonderfully sounding room can only be considered a true blessing in my world. And let's not forget the voice, as Robert Forster eloquently outlined in his recent review in The Monthly magazine:

"None of these songs would be as good or as pleasurable if Paul Kelly wasn't the singer he is. It is his most overlooked talent ... there are no growls or yelps, or strange ticks, or Americanisms, or faux-Pommy bits; he hasn't fallen into the horrible trap of so many old and new folk singers who sound like they've just stepped off the boat at Botany Bay, circa 1800. In fact, Kelly doesn't seem to be interested in authenticity at all - it just comes naturally to him, and it reaches further because of that, to the campfires and the bush, the suburbs and suburban pub, and the inner-city sophisticates. His voice - sly and warm, laconic and sometimes frail - may be the closest thing we have to a national one."

The songs flowed beautifully on from each other, and each musician had their moments in the spotlight. Pete Luscombe oozed rhythm through every movement of his polka-dot-shirt-wearing body, Ash Naylor was suitably restrained, but allowed the odd moment of superbly timed riff-work for effect and poignancy. Bill's bass proved to underlying foil to it all, as well as keyboardists Cam's finishing touches on the whole shebang.

It was the inclusion of Vika Bull on backup duties which astounded me the most, however, as she proceeded to slowly steal the show from under Paul's nose. Granted, from an outsider's perspective (The Tiger's, for example), the intrusion of this relatively unknown woman on Paul's songs was a little strange. And, as she proceeded to take the entire lead vocal for a number of songs, the audience might be forgiven for thinking they were gypped with their gig ticket. A little analysis revealed, however, that she was simply interpreting the many Paul songs he had written from and for the female perspective. One by one her booming deep, ethereal voice stole back the feminine side of Paul and his songs. The crowning, tear-jerking crescendo was the tale of betrayal and loss of trust in Everything's Turned To White. Vika took the majority of the vocal, with just Cam's spooky undertone of keys providing the murky underwater backing to this tale of woe. When a guitar-less Paul stepped from the shadows to sing the male protagonists pathetic plea of stupid innocence, it was earth-shattering raw emotion.

Indeed, it was Vika who led the vocal on the first of a triumvirate of sublime music which provided the evening's absolute highlight in my eyes. An extended jam of Sweet Guy had Vika plunging the depths of her vocal range and tone as she let out guttural moans of despair which provided the brushstrokes to the 3 guitarists' riff work ending out this classic of Paul's mid-80s ballads. From there, the band when into full rock mode with Deeper Water, beginning with Paul's bittersweet coming of age tale, being driven largely by a mind-bendingly simple and extremely effective bass and keys riff underlying the whole song. Pete and Paul's crashing finale segued straight into Paul's rebirth song God Told Me To, as the band well and truly found its feet within the massive space.

A double encore ended, somewhat predictably, with the Kev Carmody co-penned classic From Little Things, Big Things Grow. Starting with just Paul solo on stage, each verse saw a new band member casually walk on stage and join in the playing by the time the chorus kicked in. And while Ash needed to kick his guitar tech up the bum for missing his cue, the idea cemented beautifully as the entire band was in full swing by the final, neck-hair-raising chorus which signalled an end to yet another wonderfully crafted evening at the sonic hands of one of Australia's finest musical touchstones.


Anonymous said...

Hey baby, good words. Do you compose at all? What kind of music do you make? bedak

Jamin (AKA Blue Box) said...

Hey Squire Bedak. High praise indeed, considering my sides are still aching as a result of seeing yours and JBs words mashed up together last night (went to Felafel... frack me, man. Well done with the burger in-jokes, too!)

I "compose". In that I "play". In that, I smack some pigskin with my bare 'ands once in a while which somehow resembles some form of hippy beat to go with a nice little acoustic 4-piece. And I mangle the harmonica.

Dr Yobbo said...

Never saw Paul Kelly play, but always enjoyed watching Ash Naylor go round with Even. Always thought they were a most underrated band. Only had one trick - Bowie meets Sgt Pepper - but it was a good one.

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