A lot has been written about the power of a lone musician to pick up a guitar and make an audience believe in something.
It’s one thing to invoke that image and conjure up a singer-songwriter in the mold of Bob Dylan or James Taylor. It’s another thing entirely to feel physically transported to another time and place in the presence of a quiet master who has lived enough life and picked the right words to break down the mechanics of love and loss with authority.
Australian Paul Kelly strummed his way through an evening at The Hamilton in Washington, DC, last Thursday to do just that. A man of casual gravitas, Kelly himself occasionally quipped he was about to share yet another song about a failed relationship.
But that image of the humble singer-songwriter and the power of his guitar? Despite his occasional joke, his music becomes very real when wet tears glisten on the face of someone you love at the sound of a lonely song.
It was hard not to be moved by Kelly’s latest album, Spring and Fall, which he performed in its entirety with the able assistance of fellow acoustic guitarist (and nephew) Dan Kelly. The album, sweet and melancholy, comprises the 37-minute story of a man and a woman who meet, fall in love, and then fall out of love, becoming perhaps a little wiser for the experience down the road. The album paints moments big and small in the ways of capturing the excitement of a relationship beginning (as with “When A Woman Loves A Man”), of suggesting things may not be going so well as you would like (“Sometimes My Baby”), and of feeling the pain of breaking up (as with “Cold as Canada,” a title that may have sounded a bit silly coming from anyone else).
The stark, occasionally sparse, songs gave me an introduction to a voice that has been honed for more than 30 years in his adopted city of Melbourne and beyond. But it was when Kelly returned for another 90 minutes to tour through his previous 18 albums that he and the audience truly connected.
The songs were powerful and familiar to the audience of Australians and Americans who had gathered to hear them. Kelly starts with “Love Never Runs on Time,” which gives him one of his opportunities to sound the most like Dylan, particularly with his infections in the refrain, and to showcase the pleasing sound of his harmonica. “Winter Coat” told the tale of a lover who has long since departed but her gift of a coat remains with him throughout the years, perhaps in some way leaving the man in the woman’s embrace. The song “Difficult Woman,” although a sweet ode to a challenging personality, introduces another rare moment of levity when Kelly says it accurately describes fellow musician Renée Geyer, for whom he wrote it.
One of his most simply affecting songs, and one that will long stay with me, is his “How to Make Gravy,” a Christmas song about a man in jail missing a traditional family gathering. The otherwise maudlin song literally contains a recipe for gravy but more importantly holds a recognition of how things might never be the same again.
There are moments in your life — moments big and small — that define who you are. Maybe the small moments are the most crucial. And maybe that’s because sometimes you don’t have to say anything during those small moments — their temperament already has been set by other factors. Perhaps it’s during such small moments we listen best. And you could do a lot worse during those moments than to listen to Paul Kelly.
Paul Kelly has three scheduled dates remaining on this tour: Monday in Birmingham, Ala., Tuesday in Atlanta, Ga., and Thursday in Dallas, Texas. He suggested he could return to the United States and DC in September or October. Don’t miss out on the rare opportunity to see him if you have the chance.