Reviewed by Steve Hoy.
‘A performance of great intimacy, reflection and emotional power…’ –
PERRY KEYES – FLYING SAUCER CLUB, MELBOURNE,JUNE 21
Apparently, the Keyes camp was concerned that after a considerable lay-off from performing, audience numbers would be down for this brief Melbourne visit. However an almost full house of the Perry faithful ensured that every song was met with smitten delight. And rightly so. In a twenty-one-song show this was a performance of great intimacy, reflection and emotional power, delivered by a singer of genuine warmth and control, and a band capable of gentle subtlety or great rock’n’roll energy, often within a few bars of the same song.
Re-listening to Last Ghost Train Home and Johnny Ray’s Downtown before venturing out, it is the strength of the songwriting that is the most striking feature. Keyes works within the handed down elements of verses, bridges and choruses because he’s good at it and uses the standard instrumentation of rock’n’roll. Certainly sonic and structural influences are apparent; it’s the nature of the three or four chord song. If comparisons emerge with the tinkling piano figures and their anticipation of lovers leaping into nights of last chance power drives, or with the Sydney place names a reminder of Paul Kelly’s evocation of Darlinghurst, they soon evaporate. You’ve heard it before but this version has special qualities.
Keyes richly detailed songs are located on the streets around the once fiercely working class South Sydney. However, they exist in a curious limbo where the ghosts of the early 1970s haunt a hazy present. That the areas from the rail yards to the SCG are now gentrified real estate opportunities amplifies the sense of regret at the emotional core of Keyes’ best songs. What Keyes shares with many great songwriters is his empathy with his characters and the ability to find musical settings that reflect the emotions inherent in the lyric. Where Springsteen, say, revels in the triumph of characters rising above socio-economically determined difficulties, Perry Keyes protagonists are offered transcendence through the power of memory, and survival through loyalty within social bonds, even if they are bonds made in petty crime or desperate drug deals.
The opening three songs, two from upcoming album Sunny Holt, make it clear that this band is a tighter unit than the one that visited Melbourne in 2010. With the only changes being the addition of multi-instrumentalist Edmond Kairouz and the switch to Last Ghost Train Home and Johnny Ray’s Downtown producer Grant Shanahan for bass player duties, something has shifted in the rehearsal room. This band is capable of presenting and embellishing Keyes’ songs in any live setting and the sound at The Flying Saucer Club tonight is punchy and hi-fi. The addition of Shanahan provides drummer Lloyd G with a suitable rhythmic arranging foil; indeed G often ‘conducts’ to emphasise tempos or dynamics. Together Shanahan and G create a powerful foundation for Kairouz and the textures of Matt Galvin on electric guitar and Johnny Gauci on piano, Hammond and accordion. The band plays to its strengths; solos are for the song, adding to dynamics rather than letting off virtuosic steam.
It is difficult to allot highpoints to a show which is almost perfectly paced, each song playing into the next to create a satisfying whole. However the trio of ‘Johnny Ray’s Downtown’, ‘Pest’ and ‘Things That A Boy Would Do’ was outstanding, especially the wall-of-sound segue between the first two songs. The sublime ‘Queen of Everyone’s Heart’ from Johnny Ray’s Downtown is heart meltingly delicate with G delivering Bek-Jean Stewart’s recorded descant part while Keyes recounts his tale of misplaced love.
The evidence from the seven new songs aired tonight is that Sunny Holt will be a gem. ‘Soft Blue Sky’, ‘Brylcreem’, ‘Alcohol and Pills’, ‘Mario Milano’s Monaro’, ‘Gasoline’ and ‘Harry The Wig’ – tonight played solo as part of Keyes’ mostly one-man encore – are the equal of the more familiar tunes. Perry Keyes, already a Sydney treat is a national treasure in waiting.