Paul Kelly played a tiny secret show in Brisbane last night

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Paul Kelly drew hundreds to a late-night party at The Zoo for BIGSOUND.

My favourite BIGSOUND moment happened in 2013.

British punk poet Billy Bragg had spoken at the annual music industry conference, which happens in Brisbane each September, earlier that morning and had announced a tiny, intimate show in a venue a fraction of the size of the theatres he’d usually play.

He ended the set by unexpectedly blazing through his entire first album, 1983’s 15-minute-long masterwork Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy,and my favourite Billy Bragg album. I didn’t think BIGSOUND could get any better than that.

That was until last night.

Word had spread that Paul Kelly, who had delivered a keynote speech at BIGSOUND in the morning, was dropping by legendary small Brisbane venue The Zoo to smash out a late-night set. By 11.30pm, there were dozens in the line outside the venue. By 11.45pm there were hundreds.

The prospect of seeing one of Australia’s biggest artists in a venue that barely holds 500 people (he recently sold out Brisbane’s 9,500 capacity Riverstage in a flash) was electrifying. The vibe in the room was not like any other at the festival so far. Unlike how we felt about the up-and-comers we’d all converged in the Valley to see, we all knew exactly what we were getting, and we knew that we were going to love it.

Sure enough, Paul Kelly, replete with full band, took us through an hour of absolute gems. A few new tracks, a few old favourites, every song a winner. His songs blared through The Zoo til after 1am, the venue’s open windows ensuring most of Fortitude Valley were treated to a special late-night Paul Kelly show, whether they wanted it or not.

There were almost certainly noise complaints from nearby apartments. But no one in Australia is going to shut down a Paul Kelly show.

Everyone in the room sang along with abandon. Beer flowed, revellers doled out hugs and high-fives to friends and strangers alike. Everyone was smiling; it felt like a big after-party with Australia’s greatest singer-songwriter providing the soundtrack.

Look, this is not what BIGSOUND is about.

With 150 fledgling bands, all of them of a pretty damn high standard, playing across Fortitude Valley throughout the week, punters are exposed to so much fresh, new and exciting music through the event. The event is about connecting these artists with their future managers, booking agents and fans.

But as the music conference grows, so do the special, secret shows. The shows that spread by word-of-mouth and that everyone wants to be a part of. The kind of shows that Metallica, Kanye West and Prince have all played at Austin’s SXSW over the years that helped give the event a certain prestige. Shows by artists who need no help in the music industry. Who play a set for the sake of it.

Paul Kelly’s felt like the first really big one in BIGSOUND history. As the festival grows, so does the possibility for these events. In the coming years, BIGSOUND will likely become as renowned for the shows that the festival doesn’t announce than the ones they do.

So long as these big sets don’t take away from the allure of emerging bands, and retain the same sense of fun as Paul Kelly’s, this will be a great thing for the event. You should go to BIGSOUND to find your new favourite artists, not to see those you've loved for years. But if you just so happen to stumble upon a rare gem of a performance like this, all the better.

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