A perfect night with Paul Kelly

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Circular Quay felt like like the epicentre of Australian culture on Sunday night.

Sometimes, part of me believes there is a recipe for the perfect live set.

It goes for 20 minutes. It offers both comfort (music you recognise and love) and confoundment (music that pushes your perceptions of taste, quality and meaningful expression).

It’s performed in a medium sized space with a small crowd. No one talks during the set, but everyone applauds after every song, whether they liked it or not. It’s about innovation and respect as much as it’s about entertainment.

But then I see a show like Paul Kelly’s at the Sydney Opera House Forecourt on Sunday night – a show as close to perfect as I’ve ever witnessed – and I’m reminded that there is no such recipe. That it is possible to relish every second of a two-hour set that you watch while crammed in tightly with 4,000 other people – many of whom chatter tipsily with old friends while the band plays – and not once be shocked by an unexpected blast of noise, skewed melody or tasteless lyric.

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Paul Kelly at the Sydney Opera House Forecourt. Photo by Russell Privett.

If you’re not a Paul Kelly fan, you just have to deal with the fact that he is the voice of Australia. There are dozens of truly genius songwriters in this country, many of them with a bent that makes them quintessentially Australian in one way or another. But there is only one Paul Kelly.

He’s erudite and he covers all bases.

On Sunday night he sang about our history; ‘Our Sunshine’ spoke of the life of Ned Kelly, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ about the Wave Hill walk-off.

He sang about things that make us proud to be Australian; the smell of the earth in ‘Petrichor’, the city lights in ‘Sydney From A 727’, cold Melbourne winters in ‘Leaps and Bounds’.

He sang about infatuation in ‘Firewood and Candles’ and ‘Josephina’, while Vika Bull sang about the scourge of domestic violence in ‘Sweet Guy’.

Hell, he even sings a song from the perspective of an incarcerated criminal, that features a recipe for gravy, a reference to semi-obscure 70s reggae star Junior Murvin and the line ‘have a Merry Christmas’. A song so widely beloved that it feels practically anthemic at this point. Try explaining that to someone from anywhere else in the world.

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Paul Kelly at the Sydney Opera House Forecourt. Photo by Russell Privett.

Each of Kelly’s vignettes means something different to each of the 4,000 people assembled on the forecourt. Each song has a different sense of meaning and power to the many, many thousands more at home who are watching the live TV broadcast or listening to it on Double J.

They might remind us of sticky summer roadtrips, hungover wintery mornings, footy games, cafes, weddings, baptisms, barbecues, homesickness, first loves, break ups and the friends you just don’t see anymore.

While each song means something different to us all, there’s something in Kelly’s music that unites us. Something that makes it not at all surprising to see entire families on this stunning Sydney night enjoying the experience in the shadows of the Opera House together.

And as the crowd sings along to ‘To Her Door’, ‘Look So Fine, Feel So Low’ or ‘Before Too Long’, they don’t even really feel like Paul Kelly’s songs. They feel like they’re ours.

You could theorise forever on what it is that makes them connect so strongly, but you’d never know for sure. And that’s a large part of the beauty of these songs.

At its worst – those times when you’re just not in the mood to deal with the crowds – Circular Quay feels like a boring theme park. It’s perpetually swarming with tourists, packed with tacky shops and feels devoid of soul.

Given the right mood and occasion, that same space morphs into something quite extraordinary, as the natural beauty of the harbour and the confected magnificence of two of the world’s most astounding architectural wonders combine to form a picture-perfect setting.

Add music and it becomes more special still. And if that music happens to be the songs that so aptly characterise our country, the whole scene becomes incredibly moving. It feels like the epicentre of Australian culture. 

When there’s an artist of this calibre, playing at a venue of this splendour, you come as close as possible to a failsafe recipe for a perfect night.

The moment we can pinpoint what makes a show like this and an artist like Paul Kelly so perfect, is the moment where it just doesn’t become worth it anymore. Long may he continue to be our poet, and long may we never understand how he does it.

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Paul Kelly at the Sydney Opera House Forecourt. Photo by Russell Privett.

Listen to the concert on Double J right now.

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