Words | Tammy Whitelaw
Images | Tam Schilling
For Paul Kelly, travelling interstate from St Kilda to Kings Cross has always been a carefree 13-hour bus ride. And for the past year and a half, travelling anywhere outside your home state has been a real gamble. With national touring an ever-changing minefield of border closures and lockdowns, the faces that were once pressed to bus windows now find themselves pressed against the windows of hotel quarantine. Just days before Kelly and his band were to kick off their massive ‘On The Road Again’ tour in Caloundra, the tour suffered its first COVID roadblock in the form of Queensland’s snap three-day lockdown.
After a slight shuffling of dates and support acts, the ambitious 27-date regional tour finally got its wheels spinning, hitting Toowoomba and the Gold Coast before rolling into Ipswich’s Civic Centre on Sunday night. With the shows’ original support act Gordi stuck in Melbourne, Sam Buckingham stepped in last minute to save the day. The Byron Bay singer-songwriter wowed the eager crowd with her charming lyrics and soaring vocals, even silencing the room to the point where the hum of the air conditioning acted as backing track.
It’s been a long time between drinks for Paul Kelly and his band. These were the group’s first live shows in over 18 months, and for most of the crowd, it was theirs too. But we all rocked up (masked up) in the name of reviving live music.
Paul eased us into things, taking to the stage solo for Seagulls of Seattle from ARIA-winning 2018 album Nature, before the band joined him onstage to roar into And Death Shall Have No Dominion. “It’s good to be back playing music with my friends, and to you,” he beamed. Clearly enjoying himself, he shuffled across the stage as the band ripped into Before Too Long.
The usual suspects joined Paul on stage – Dan Kelly and Ash Naylor on guitars, Peter ‘Lucky’ Luscombe on drums, Cameron Bruce on keys, and Bill Macdonald on bass – but just two songs into the set it became clear that two key players were missing: the Bull sisters. Vika and Linda have become an integral part of Kelly’s live show, so their absence was noticeable. We have to say, though: Dan and Cam did a fine job on backing vocals, including those piercingly high notes at the start of Careless.
Paul informed us that he and Dan had actually been in Queensland since May, when they flew up for a family gathering. The pair decided to stay put for fear of being trapped in the Melbourne lockdown upon their return. With their instruments sitting useless down south, the pair decided to head to the Gold Coast to pick up a nylon-string guitar to practice on, and that same guitar made its appearance at the show this evening.
Sharing the story, it’s obvious how much effort and planning were put into ensuring these shows went ahead; as the tour dates loomed, the rest of the band hightailed it up to Kingscliff for what Paul called “Operation Border Cross.” He also shares that the time spent in Northern NSW inspired a new song titled Northern Rivers, which was “so new it’s still got wet paint,” he warned us.
There is no denying Paul Kelly is one of the greatest Australian songwriters of all time. His iconic catalogue of songs hit at the core of what it is to be Australian. As much as the classics like How to Make Gravy, Dumb Things and To Her Door (which all made their way into the Ipswich set) mean to us Aussies, where Kelly really shines is in the more intimate tracks. His songwriting does more than just evoke memories in us; he digs deeper to reveal the emotions that accompany them.
With just his acoustic guitar, Paul pulled laughs and tears in a matter of minutes with They Thought I Was Asleep. Then, moments later, we’re taken on another emotional rollercoaster as he hit us with the heartbreaking If I Could Start Today Again.
Leaps and Bounds smashed the already perfect set out of the park, sending the crowd home on the high they were all chasing tonight – one we had missed dearly. I can only imagine that 10 years from now we’ll find ourselves at another Paul Kelly show, singing along to a song he’s written about the pandemic, reminding us of these crazy times and every emotion that went along with them.