By now, it's pretty much redundant to declare Paul Kelly a national treasure - everybody knows it, everybody feels it. Instead, attending his shows nowadays, feels more akin to catching up with the family, a reunion of sorts with your favourite, much beloved uncle at the head of the table. There's no fireplace at this house though, not even a little feet heater -- it's a brisk eight degrees but feels like four, at least, it does to these unprepared Queenslanders. It's difficult to complain though while overwhelmed with this patriotic feeling, preparing to see a show in arguably the most Aussie of situations -- under the sails of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Vivid lighting up the night sky in the background.
Gamilaraay legend, Thelma Plum, opens tonight, immediately dazzling all with her blatant charm and wit, universally relatable pop and, of course, one of the most majestic voices in the country. The latter, in fact, literally leaves the audience, who are new fans by now, completely gobsmacked and holding their own jaws in wonderment. She and her band play songs from her 10/10 2019 debut album Better In Blak, starting with the likes of 'Homecoming Queen', 'Woke Blokes', 'Don't Let A Good Girl Down' and 'Clumsy Love' before beginning to pepper some new ones in, which she mentions writing a lot in lockdown at home in Brisbane. New titles (forgive me if these names are inaccurate) like 'I Don't Play That Song Anymore', 'The Brown Snake', 'When It Rains, It Pours', 'Bars On The Windows' and brand new single 'Backseat Of My Mind' assuring the future of Thelma Plum admirers are in good hands. She covers Powderfinger's 'These Days' and leaves 'Clumsy Love' and 'Better In Blak' competing for space in the part of our brain which holds hummable tunes. If Plum isn't already a household name, dare it be suggested that it's only a matter of time. Not long now!
From these days turning out nothing like we'd planned to 'The Times They Are A-Changin'', a declaration by Bob Dylan from 1964 and shared by practically everyone in 2022. Aside from Dylan himself, not many not only understand this better, but can also articulate clearer than Paul Kelly. The clever Vivid organisers tapped the man to do something with his set "that's a bit different" and, fittingly with a catalogue as deep and as rich as his own, he settles on a thematic thread of "Time And Tide: Four Decades Of Song" and opens with a rousing cover of that very Dylan song.
From there, the setlist is a two hour journey unlike anything this writer expected or has witnessed at any Paul Kelly show of the past. While not entirely obvious, it's immensely rewarding with a few of the inescapable hits thrown in for the casual fan, but all with that ongoing theme of time. New songs like 'Back To The Future', 'The Pretty Place' and 'I Wasted Time' battle for space next to the likes of 'Love Never Runs On Time', 'When I First Met Your Ma', 'To Be Good Takes A Long Time' and 'If I Could Start Today Again'.
At this juncture in his career, the likes of 1995's 'Deeper Water' might be predictable, but it sounds poignant and more like a classic beside 'To Her Door' every time it's played. Linda Bull takes shares the spotlight on the former and, as a mainstay backing vocalist with sister Vika Bull, feel utterly irreplaceable now. In fact, as he declares early in the piece: "the whole crew is here" and is flanked not only by the Bull sisters, but also by all familiar faces Bill McDonald (bass), Peter Luscombe (drums), Ash Naylor (guitar), Cameron Bruce (keys) and nephew Dan Kelly (guitar).
By the time Kelly and co hit the pen-ultimate song of the set - 'How To Make Gravy' - he has sprouted stories and poetry relating to this incredible set, furthering evidence that the man could read the phone book and we'd listen. It's closely followed by 'From Little Things Grow' which, frankly, steals the show. Thelma Plum returns, her voice on the second verse once again leaving the crowd momentarily speechless, before letting out what felt like a surprising and involuntary roar. For a third verse, Ziggy Ramo enters stage right and spits words from his recent cover so potent, the song suddenly feels like a protest. Just incredible. Russell Smith and his didgeridoo round out the song, which now, in this form, is an absolute monster of a song and, true to its themes, not the little folk song Kelly co-wrote with Kev Carmody over two decades ago.
By the time Kelly returns to the stage for a solo encore of 'Sydney From a 747', we can't possibly respectfully expect any more, but he continues into a new track 'Sonnet 60', 'Leaps And Bounds' (arguably the most uplifting moment of the night, complete with a side visit from one of the lit-up Vivid Tall Ships) and bookending the set with another cover, John Cale's 'Buffalo Ballet'.
Paul Kelly is Australia's long-serving rock'n'roll poet laureate, old school in his approach yet somehow transcending any sense of trend and pretension. Tonight's show is truly something special, leaving everyone in attendance with nothing less than a once-in-a-lifetime experience (unless you also attended one of the other nights), something these trying a-changin' times desperately need.