19 November, Sydney Opera House

In an interesting transition from comedy to music, Carl Barron took to the stage on Saturday night under the pseudonym Paul Kelly, to perform some of his music at the Sydney Opera House.

… just kidding.

When the topic of Aussie music legends is brought up, always in the mix (and undeniably highly regarded at that) is the incredible Paul Kelly. For decades, Kelly has soundtracked every corner of the Australian landscape; from the outback to the working class, to the wealthy city slickers, giving the Australian people a rare musical richness, so beautiful that it allows everyone a chance to relate or be swept away in a story.

Life Is Fine, Kelly’s latest album and also his first ARIA #1, once again showcased his incomparable poetry writing, less is more approach to songs and a constant appeal to audiences, young and old. Playing a run of shows to celebrate the album, I was lucky enough to catch Kelly playing at one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks under the darkening night sky.

Kicking off at 6pm and braving the spontaneous downpour of rain, up and coming Sydney youths Middle Kids took to the stage to warm up the plastic-clad crowd, successfully getting the early birds up and grooving. “You look like a cult… but we’re into that” mused lead singer and all ’round badass Hannah Joy, peering out into a sea of seethrough ponchos. Hits Edge Of Town and Never Start carried a buoyant energy through the crowd as people bopped and wiggled inside their rainproof overlays.

Next up was American country/folk legend Steve Earle. Minimalistic in his set up of just himself, a couple of acoustic guitars and a mandolin, Earle steered the audience through an engaging and open set, singing songs and telling stories of women, gun control and of course, your dad’s old favourite, Copper Head Road. Before finishing up, Earle stated to the crowd, much to their delight, “If you have a boss, you need a union,” which was taken with a cheer and a sea of fist bumps to the air.

As the clouds finally cleared, and the rain subsided, a blue/grey suited Paul Kelly entered the stage. Like a warm hug, he wove his way through title track off the album Life Is Fine like it was a cosy Sunday evening conversation being had with each and every audience member. Finishing the song, the rest of Kelly’s band entered the stage. “I’ve brought the whole band!” he stated excitedly. The crowd knew they were in for something special.

Firing through a few tunes off the new album, including Rising Moon and Finally Something Good, Kelly was sure to not leave out the old favourites. Before Too Long was met with a rousing collection of voices, young and old, singing along like it was karaoke at a 60th birthday party.

Always sure to tell a story, Paul Kelly is one of the few artists whose songs paint a picture of some of Australia’s most essential moments in history, encapsulating them in the minds of generations in an artistically memorable way. As an introduction to his song Our Sunshine, Kelly gave a brief tale of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. “Ned Kelly and the cops led a merry dance for many years…” he explained, every punter glued to the stage, taking in every word.

Other set highlights included new toe-tapper Firewood & Candles, dark and alluring I Smell Trouble, showcasing Kelly’s recently gained skills on the piano, and My Man’s Got A Cold, fronted by the incredible Vica Bull, vocals dynamite enough to be compared to Aretha Franklin or Etta James.

Petrichor was the night’s undisputed masterpiece, lyrics delivered with absolute heartache and melancholia, giving everyone at the venue either goosebumps or a couple of tears. The blue-green lights oozed out into the audience, creating an eerie array of emotions and admiration.

Towards the end of a huge two and a bit hour set, like playing an ace at the end of a poker game, Kelly whipped out classics like Dumb Things and of course How To Make Gravy, as emotional fans sung the words to themselves, taking on their own meanings and interpretations. The song is one of those timeless Australian prizes, that will forever resonate in the hearts of Australian music fans, no matter how much time passes.

Not taking a second to breathe, returning to the stage was Hannah Joy of Middle Kids and Steve Earle to power through an explosive Hasn’t It Rained.

Closing the night, in the most stunning of ways, Kelly, the Bull sisters, Kelly’s bassist and nephew Dan Kelly and keyboardist Cameron Bruce, took part in an acapella, five-part harmony rendition of Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air, off the Deaths Dateless Night album. Total stillness and contentment could be felt within and throughout the crowd as the voices united to express a truly special ending to an incredible Australian music experience.

Paul Kelly has once again reminded us of not only his exquisite talents and writing abilities but also his skills in making audiences feel at home during performances, by allowing them to feel like the show is a personal conversation. The show in its entirety was a special thing to behold, but nothing will ever compare to hearing 4000 voices softly sing From Little Things Big Things Grow.

Photographer: Prudence Upton