04 Nov 2008
By Simon Collins, The West Australian
You don't go to school to learn how to write a song, Paul Kelly stated at the Quarry Amphitheatre in City Beach on a wet Tuesday night. And you can't be taught to assemble one like a table. "I went to the school of the air," he said, adding that his teachers included the Go-Betweens, Triffids, Hoodoo Gurus and the Saints.
Kelly was generous in nodding to his homegrown heroes – the Go-Betweens' Cattle and Cane inspired his Careless, Dave Faulkner and the Indian Ocean combined for Blush – but even more generous in hosting a masterclass in songcraft. As he guided the 500-strong audience from his birthplace of Adelaide to the finale of Everybody Wants to Touch Me at the first of four sold-out shows that wander alphabetically through his peerless back catalogue, Kelly shared the personal insights and inspirations behind 24 of his compositions.
Big Fine Girl was a line from a letter his great-grandfather sent to his great-grandmother. Childhood swimming lessons in the Norwood pool were the springboard for the poignant rocker, Deeper Water. His love of cricket found form in Behind the Bowler's Arm and the suitably epic Bradman. Don't Explain imagined an alternative universe where Billie Holiday didn't die broke and broken. Cities of Texas was written for Willie Nelson; Kelly admitted to sending it to him every few years in the hope he might record it some day. And Renee Geyer browbeat him into writing Difficult Woman, though she wasn't so pleased when he first sang it to her.
The intimate nature of the A-Z show (well, A-E on night one) was enhanced by the accompaniment of nephew Dan Kelly on guitar and vocals, plus Kelly's girlfriend Sian Prior, who played clarinet on the Professor Ratbaggy number, Coma, and sang backing vocals on Deeper Water. The high limestone walls and limited capacity of the Quarry also added to the warm atmosphere, despite the deluge.
The alphabetical format of the concerts means that you can almost guess the set-lists, and the expected highlights came in fan favourites Before Too Long, Bradman, Careless, Dumb Things and Every Fucking City, yet Big Heart, Darling It Hurts and Don't Start Me Talking were left in Kelly's kitbag.
Newer numbers like the excellent Coma, Curly Red and Down to My Soul impressed the diverse crowd – Kelly's fan base spans the generations – while old rarities like Don't Harm the Messenger (with Dan doing the 'talking bit' originally recorded by the Go-Betweens' late Grant McLennan) and Don't Stand So Close to the Window were like long-lost friends.
The insightful first Perth A-Z show on Tuesday highlighted the fact that Kelly's quality has not dipped with quantity. Not only does the 53-year-old have a longevity most rock stars can only dream of, but he has also maintained an unerring line and length.