The Crocodile Café, Seattle, WA • March 20, 2002
Paul Kelly is not underrated here in the U.S.; he’s virtually unknown — a conundrum that has confounded critics since the former punk rocker’s 1985 solo debut, Post. The Melbourne, Australia-based folk hero’s Stateside lack of recognition was only made more puzzling by his triumphant return — after a three-year absence — to Seattle’s famed Crocodile Café.
A wintry first day of spring greeted Paul Kelly as he began his 2002 tour of the States and Canada; anyone left in the former Jet City who has an empathy for working-class tales of love and loss — about 150 or so — braved falling flakes to reach the Croc on the evening of March 20.
The wiry, countrified alt-rock poet took the stage with an acoustic guitar and a battered amplifier of indeterminable age and make, starting the show with two solo numbers — the searing, kaleidescopic rant of “Just About to Break” and the quiet plea of “Change Your Mind,” from Kelly’s latest stunner, …Nothing But a Dream.
With Kelly’s usual band of cohorts (Strat-master Spencer Jones, keyboardist Bruce Haymes, drummer Peter Luscombe, and bassist Steve Hadley) firmly esconced onstage, he launched into a surprisingly up-tempo, yet still-poignant version of “When I First Met Your Ma” (from ’92’s import-only Hidden Things); Jones’ bottleneck prowess punctuated the playful follow-up, “I’ll Be Your Lover” (’98’s Words And Music).
Shifting velocity and alternating the new with the old proved to be Kelly’s means of transporting the mesmerized audience to his brilliantly-tinted world that night. “The Pretty Place” — a backwoods strummer, and the lonesome harmonica of “I Close My Eyes and Think Of You” (both featuring Hayme’s Hammond-emulating Alesis) were nestled with the classic “Careless,” from 1989’s So Much Water, So Close to Home. The swaggering “Somewhere in the City” and “Love is the Law” — a dance track with sampled ultra-bass — sandwiched fan favorites such as “Pouring Petrol on a Burning Man,” the angst-filled tale of “How to Make Gravy,” a campfire sing-along of “To Her Door,” and the rocking, revealing “Nothing on My Mind.”
The PA mix was remarkably good, and the veteran group was effortlessly tight — with one exception. During “Before Too Long,” — the big hook from the singer’s 1986 breakthrough with the Messengers/Coloured Girls, Gossip — Luscombe’s drum-trigger box went frantically haywire for a few moments, but Kelly and the delighted crowd laughed it off.
The night’s defining moments came halfway through Kelly’s set, when he paired the amazingly somber “Winter Coat” (from the poorly U.S.-marketed masterpiece Comedy, about which he once commented, “I could have sold more copies out of the back of a truck”) and a new heart-wrencher, “If I Could Start Today Again.” For about eight minutes, you could almost hear the wind blowing outside while the crowd, enraptured by sheer sonic beauty, observed pin-drop silence.
After twenty numbers, Kelly and the band allowed their fans a few moments of recuperation before returning with an encore. The singer delivered a clever commentary on homogenization, “Every Fucking City,” and offered one last expression of regret, the bluegrass-flavored “I Wasted Time.” After spicing one of his old standards, “Look So Fine, Feel So Low” with an engaging go-go beat, the rollercoaster was over. The audience quietly filed out into the cold; some of them wondered aloud if this was the last time they would see this moody pied piper — who obviously journeys abroad for something other than financial gain. Paul Kelly, who tops charts Down Under and who is increasingly in-demand as a producer and soundtrack-scorer, would probably never notice if he never sold another CD overseas. Yet, with another humble display of talent, the man proved this night that he firmly belongs in the same world-class singer-songwriter arena as John Hiatt, Elvis Costello or Billy Bragg. Unfortunately, he was quietly preaching to the choir; hopefully, Kelly will sing for someone on this visit that hasn’t heard his unique voice before.