Review by Brian Wise. Photos by Ken Spence.
Mossvale Park, Victoria – Saturday January 10, 2015
Paul Kelly turns 60 this week (in fact, on Tuesday January 13) and as he enters his seventh decade he has discovered a way to keep creative, vital and relevant. Not a bad achievement for someone who has been on the Australian music scene for nearly forty years.
Having done just about everything from rock to folk and bluegrass, from country to reggae, the seemingly ever restless Kelly has recently written, produced and appeared on The Merri Soul Sessions album (after releasing a series of singles). It is Kelly’s homage to yet another genre he loves. In the process, he has found a way to extend his career and maybe add some interest for himself.
As musical director (auteur?) of the project Kelly does not always have to be centre stage, even if he remains the centre of attention. As director he manages a shifting cast of excellent local players who interpret his songs and collaborations, giving him space to move and to contribute his vocals and instrumentation as required.
It is good in theory but even better in practice. In fact, this is one of the best things that Kelly has ever done and that was evidenced by a marvellous show at Mossvale – a show that was not only musically rich but also immensely enjoyable.
However, Kelly’s session was but one part of a day of terrific entertainment that often had the audience on its feet dancing, thanks to the The Melbourne Ska Orchestra, Kelly’s soul review and closing act the Cat Empire.
The picturesque Mossvale Park, 140 km southeast of Melbourne, is also the perfect venue for a small music festival. Set amongst an impressive canopy of tress that range from Algerian oak, English beech and oak to Norwegian maple, the festival caters for about 3,000 people in relative comfort.
The music is confined to one stage in a sound shell (eliminating the need for decision-making) and the rear of the site has a ring of food, drink and craft stalls and vans. It is hard to think of a more beautiful setting and gratifying that the festival probably will not cater for a larger capacity (unless another stage is added somewhere).
Rebranded in recent years as the Summer of Soul to shift the focus – and shifted to January – this event has gone from having substantial support to being a sell out show. This year that was helped by Kelly’s continued strong following and his new project which ensured the strongest line-up for some years.
The last time Kelly played in this park was at the Mossvale Music Festival in March five years ago and it was more like the ‘winter of roots music’. (It threatened to do the same this year but the rain held off and the cooler weather was almost perfect for festival-goers).
Perch Creek, having dropped the Jug Band appendage from the band name, opened the day with their ‘old timey’ music but I arrived from Melbourne in time to see second act Kiwi Marlon Williams who has been getting excellent reviews for his club shows.
Williams does indeed have an impressive voice and he engaged the audience but he was overshadowed somewhat by the following act Mojo Juju whose stage presence was compelling and voice reminiscent at times of the Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes – powerful and intense but controlled. (I could imagine what a few overseas producers, such as Daptone’s Gabe Roth, might do with this voice).
Blending blues, soul and old style R&B the performance was certainly attention-grabbing. I am not sure how long the backing band has been together but they warmed up as the show progressed and were a tight unit by the end. Apparently, there is a new album out in April and on the strength of this show it should be highly anticipated.
The massive Melbourne Ska Orchestra welcomed in the early evening with an hour of high energy music that literally had everyone on their feet (otherwise you couldn’t see the stage!). Mixing originals with a few classics, including that old chestnut ‘My Boy Lollipop,’ the ensemble quickly became a crowd favourite and were the ideal lead in to Paul Kelly’s project.
Kelly’s set list, which stretched out over 18 songs, not only highlighted The Merri Soul Sessions but also offered some of Kelly’s great songs from the past and some well chosen covers.
The rotating cast of Vika and Linda, Clairy Browne, Kira Puru and Dan Sultan offers enough vocal talent to take the pressure off Kelly (whose voice can be an acquired taste for some). The musicians included long-time Kelly band stalwarts in drummer Peter Luscombe, bassist Bill McDonald along with Ash Naylor on guitar and Cameron Bruce on keyboards. It is an elite and finely honed outfit.
The Bull sisters opened the show – Vika on ‘What You want’ and Linda on ‘Smells Like Rain’ (which it did) – followed by Kelly, who continued the rain theme on ‘Hasn’t It Rained’ and then Clairy Browne on ‘Keep On Coming Back for More,’ Dan Sultan on ‘Don’t Let A Good Thing Go’ and Kelly again for ‘Thank You.’ Other selections from the new album included Linda Bull on ‘Sweet Guy,’ Kira Puru on ‘I Don’t Know What To Do’ and Kelly’s ‘I Close My Eyes And Think Of You.’
Of Kelly’s other songs the highlight for me was ‘Song From The Sixteenth Floor’, which originally appeared on 1994’s Wanted Man album and featured Randy Jacobs on guitar. It has long been one of my favourites and here the some came alive again with Sultan, Vika and Linda and Puru on backing vocals. With the full band and array of singers it sounded fantastic. Dan Sultans’ reading of ‘’Look So Fine, Feel So low’ and Kira Puru’s ‘Give In To My love’ were also excellent. Kelly’s rendition of ‘How To Make Gravy’ was timely given the season.
The interpretations started with Linda Bull’s version of ‘Lead Me On,’ after the 1970 Gwen McCrae hit version. Kelly and Kira Puru offered a tasteful version of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s ‘Dark End Of The Street’ while Dan Sultan teamed with Clairy Browne for the old Sam & Dave hit ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’ (written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter).
The Kelly gang closed the show with a full ensemble delivery of the bouncy gospel-tinged ‘Hasn’t It Rained’ – a song that sounds as if it might have been recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Mahalia Jackson but is in fact a band composition from The Merri Soul Sessions. (Someone please get this song to Irma Thomas immediately!).
All in all it was one of the most enjoyable shows that I have seen Kelly deliver for some time. Not only that be he also appeared to be having an absolutely great time on stage. What a wonderful way to celebrate a 60th birthday: by demonstrating that you are just as creative as ever! Happy birthday indeed.
As for the Summer of Soul day, it has hit on just the right formula and should continue to thrive.
The vibe at Mossvale is always good; however, next year the organisers might look at doubling or tripling the number of portaloos. Not so much a problem for blokes, as for many of them the trees and bushes beckoned, but there were some justifiable comments from women who had to stand in lengthy lines. It is amazing how what seems like a minor issue for some is an understandably major issue for others. Given the history of the event I am sure this will be fixed.