18 Mar 2013

Live review: Royal Theatre, Canberra

Live review: Royal Theatre, Canberra

BMA Magazine, review by Glen Martin


Royal Theatre, Canberra, Sunday February 24

We attend shows like these to be part of communal sing-along, to hear songs already implanted into our heads rendered again, if not anew. It¹s not the cutting edge of live performance. It¹s a comfort blanket. Or this was what I expected. Instead, Neil Finn and Paul Kelly executed a masterclass in material and its interpretation. This was a surprisingly thrilling show.

Neither man is the type to stay still ­ Kelly¹s latest LP is a low-key triumph, whereas Finn is famously restless.

Both men cut a fine figure ­ Finn as he ever was, a disciple of suited Brit style tempered with a dash of geek dad, while Kelly looks more and more like an SP bookie circa 1968. That his nephew, the great Dan Kelly, is on the stage but seems dwarfed by his uncle¹s presence indicates just how serious the onstage firepower is.

A show in this room will always struggle to connect intimately and I don¹t get the impression that the rapport between the two leads is smooth they famously battled on Melbourne tennis courts during the Œ80s, respectful but competitive. There¹s an air of that in their gentle ribbing. But the feeling that something special is happening overwhelms the beigeness of the room and the lack of smooth banter.

The sliding interplay between the singers and their catalogues provides a good percentage of tonight¹s pleasure. Kelly steals Into Temptation from Finn with the most perfect of deliveries, while Finn¹s take on You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed is equally affecting. What¹s more engaging is when the singers each take a verse of a tune; the combined effect elevates the song itself. So when Kelly takes the first verse of Distant Sun and Finn kicks in with the second, there¹s a palpable lift of energy. It becomes celebratory. And it clearly indicates who the star of the show is: the songs. The canon is centre stage and in taking this approach both singers become servants of those songs. It¹s never just a verse-for-verse trade, but each voice is positioned where it best suits the melody. It¹s both appropriate and thrilling to hear the two voices operate to their strengths, Finn hitting the high notes and handling the esoteric sections, Kelly bringing grit and practical worldliness. They¹ve taken their own and each other¹s songs apart, rebuilding them in a stunning fashion.

Other highlights include Finn and Dan Kelly¹s shared vocal on Only Talking Sense, Paul bringing the room to gentle sobs during They Thought I Was Asleep, a brief dissertation on the history of gala apples in Australia (grafted by the grandfather of bass player Zoe Hauptmann, a Pialligo native and the keeper of a fine groove), and a hilarious section on the travails of being a young man fighting the battle of tight pants in confined spaces (the elder Finn detailing his early experience, echoed by his son Elroy, who, by the way, is a master sticksman).

But the real highlights were in how fresh and essential these standards of the Australasian songbook sounded; the whipcrack opening and melodic perfection of Before Too Long, the sinuous Sinner, the stunning simple power of Deeper Water, the soaring Won¹t Give In. The second encore featured two songs I¹d hoped wouldn¹t feature in the gig, as they¹ve become so repeated as to become meaningless. But To Her Door sounded brand new and utterly thrilling, while Don¹t Dream It¹s Over was moving and soothing, and something a little too lovely for words. It was hymnal and the room was chock full of believers. They will talk about this show for years.

Photo by Mark Turner