Before Too Long: A Tribute to Paul Kelly @ Forum Theatre, Melbourne (14/11/2009)

In 1979, Paul Kelly released his first single, Recognition off his debut album Talk. Now, 30 years on, it was time for a tribute to the man that has become one of Australia’s most revered singer songwriters; whose songs have affected many a listener and influenced many a songwriter over his expansive career. Named after one of Kelly’s best singles, the concert took the all too appropriate title, Before Too Long. And what better venue to host such a tribute than Melbourne’s Forum Theatre – the venue that last hosted Kelly’s extensive A – Z concerts in 2006. With 22 albums in his catalogue, this show was only ever going to be a taste of the man’s work, but what a sweet taste it was.

If the idea of a Paul Kelly tribute wasn’t enough to draw the Melbourne masses to the Forum, then the line-up surely was. The cast of musicians could have made a worthy Homebake line-up, with Australia’s best singers of the current scene lending a hand, including John Butler, Missy Higgins, Paul Dempsey, Katy Steele, Bob Evans, Adalita, Ozi Batla, Jae Laffer, Clare Bowditch, Dan Kelly, Dan Sultan and Megan Washington. Behind the 12 temporary guests were fixtures for the evening, Augie March (all bar Glenn Richards) and musical director, Ash Naylor – a worthy choice given his touring work with Kelly over the past 3 years.

Triple J’s Vijay Khurana greeted the full house, reminding everyone in the room why they were there. Everyone in the room has, at one stage, lived their life to the soundtrack of a Paul Kelly song, claimed Khurana, and judging by the reception that followed it seems he was right. The curtains were raised and the band cut straight to the chase, with Naylor delivering his solid voice on the night’s title number, Before Too Long. The introduction was an immediate success, filling the Forum with the crowd’s voice and plenty of smiles for the homage, and for the musicians paying it.

Megan Washington was a stand out from the very beginning, providing two songs back to back that really reflected the power of Kelly’s music. The first, Everybody Loves You Baby, reflected on his musicality, with the Arnold Horns adding a very lively brass section. Washington’s second choice was much more about Kelly’s lyricism, as she explained she wept upon first hearing it. The song was Meet Me in the Middle of the Air and she performed it completely solo without any accompaniment – the power of the song reflected in the dead silence of the crowd.

Giving tribute to his namesake seemed like something Dan Kelly was quite excited about, though nervous nonetheless. Like Washington, he performed two styles of Paul Kelly song also. The first was You Touched Me Down to My Soul, which was complemented by Kelly’s melancholy vocal style. The second, Cross Town, was much more lively – a quick, fast, rock and roll number – that Kelly was happy to admit he’d stolen his whole shtick from, including the Chuck Berry guitar solos.

Dan Sultan was quick to steal the show, dancing his way toward the microphone in his own soulful style, looking mighty dapper in his suit and tie and happy to have a hefty brass backing. Naylor introduced Sultan as his “Soul Brother No. 1” and that’s just what he was, delivering Give In To My Love with all new gusto, waving his lapel and beating his hand to his heart for all the ladies in the room. Look So Fine, Feel So Low kept the moving feel that Sultan does so well and rounded off his own fine tribute.

“My mother’s going to kill me,” quipped Clare Bowditch, as she appeared on stage with a heart drawn on her chest bearing the initials P.K. The first of Clare’s songs was Deeper Water, which was performed first on keys before grabbing her guitar and upping the tempo and energy for a potent climax and showing Bowditch’s ability to transform herself so easily. Her second number was the first great sing along for the evening, To Her Door, with the songstress more than happy to admit she’d been singing the wrong words until having to learn it for the show.

After a brief interval, Jae Laffer appeared by himself for his pair of tributes. The backdrop had now changed to a starry sky and a chandelier hung above Laffer as he produced They Thought I Was Asleep and When I First Met Your Ma, gently keeping true to the songs’ original forms. Laffer certainly has the voice for singing Kelly’s songs, and the stripped back pair were a good way of starting the second set.

Ozi Batla was next to arrive and a certain air of question hung over his interpretations to come (after all, the Herd’s cover of Redgum’s I Was Only 19 shows folk to hip hop can work remarkably well). He decided to stay true to the originals (for the most part) though, which was a good move in the end, though his one hip hop transfer in during a verse of Careless did receive quite a cheer from the crowd, the song otherwise proving itself a good choice for the man.

Adalita was another interesting addition to the line up, and decided to cast down her punk rock status for her first song and instead simply recite the lyrics to Everything’s Turning To White as the story it is. This only reflected the power of Kelly’s storytelling and again the Forum fell silent over every word Adalita read. She then took to the guitar for a vigorous rendition of Sweet Guy, or Sweet Girl as she would have it, playing in her more familiar, amped-up style, complete with a throw to the crowd for, “What makes such a sweet guy turn so mean?” Two songs that again showed such a grand diversity in Paul Kelly’s songs.

Another big sing along followed with a song close to many in the room, From St Kilda to Kings Cross, which was performed by Bob Evans. His warm delivery certainly honoured the original and was certainly contrasted by Katy Steele’s appearance next for the grander number, Most Wanted Man in the World, or in this case woman. Steele’s voice powered through the tribute, her own soulful style complementing the track.

One question for many in the crowd was who would sing Dumb Things, easily one of Kelly’s trademarks. With Kiernan Box on keys and the Arnold Horns delivering the all-too-familiar intro, Paul Dempsey took to the song with serious confidence. Backed by such a strong band, Dempsey could not have been more ready for the song, with strong vocals and plenty of energy playing against Naylor during the guitar break.

Missy Higgins was next up and certainly received a welcome reception as she took to her keyboard. Higgins kept things subtle for her performance, providing two lovable Kelly tracks – You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed and If I Could Start Today Again. Once more, the full band sat these ones out, as Higgins reflected on Kelly’s undeniable song writing talent. One uniquely Australian voice echoing another.

Although only being billed for the Friday night show, John Butler clearly couldn’t stay away and returned to a potent cheer. The first song Butler played was How to Make Gravy, which Butler was evidently happy to be performing – it’s lyrical precedence enhanced well by Butler’s stellar guitar work. Then, to finish things up, Butler invited Missy Higgins and Dan Sultan back to the stage for one of Australia’s greatest songs, From Little Things Big Things Grow. Taking each verse in turn, the three looked more than proud to have the honour of performing the song and did a brilliant job, eventually joined by all the performers of the night to finish it off in one joyous alliance.

Finally, what better way to end the night than with a visit from the man himself. “I heard yous were having a party and thought I’d come down and see if the lights were still on.” Paul Kelly arrived a grateful man, thanking the performers for teaching him new ways to sing his songs and Dan Sultan for teaching him some new dance moves. He then invited long time musical friends and colleagues, Michael Barclay and Jon Schofield to the stage (with everyone else in the background) to finish off the night with a massive collaborative effort on Leaps and Bounds – a telling end to a fantastic celebration of his music.

I think Clare Bowditch said it well enough: “Thank you Paul for writing such shit hot songs.”

Set list:

Before Too Long (Ash Naylor)

Love Never Runs on Time (Bob Evans)

Everybody Loves You Baby (Megan Washington)

Meet Me In The Middle of the Air (Megan Washington)

Your Lovin’ Is On My Mind (Paul Dempsey)

You Touched Me Down To My Soul (Dan Kelly)

Cross Town (Dan Kelly)

Every Fucking City (Katy Steele)

Give In To My Love (Dan Sultan)

Look So Fine, Feel So Low (Dan Sultan)

Deeper Water (Clare Bowditch)

To Her Door (Clare Bowditch)

They Thought I Was Asleep (Jae Laffer)

When I First Met Your Ma (Jae Laffer)

Careless (Ozi Batla)

Sydney From a 727 (Ozi Batla)

Everything’s Turning To White (Adalita)

Sweet Guy (Adalita)

From St Kilda to Kings Cross (Bob Evans)

Most Wanted Man in the World (Katy Steele)

Dumb Things (Paul Dempsey)

You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed (Missy Higgins)

If I Could Start Today Again (Missy Higgins)

How to Make Gravy (John Butler)

From Little Things Big Things Grow (John Butler/Missy Higgins/Dan Sultan)

Leaps and Bounds (Paul Kelly/Michael Barclay/Jon Schofield)