When I first heard that the outstanding Kiwi legend Neil Finn OBE, whom I have worshipped (with his brother Tim in their bands Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn, The Finn Brothers and their amazing solo careers) since I was a teenager 30 years ago (ugh), was going to tour with celebrated Australian songwriter Paul Kelly, I ached to be a part of it, and wished they’d bring the tour to the UK. One of the best concerts, and certainly one of the greatest albums, I’ve come across was a similar winning group of Tim Finn, Dave Dobbyn and Bic Runga, who finally did perform one date in London, and I was there. This time it seemed too much to hope for, but then came the news that the marvellous Sydney Opera House, which I walked through age 6 while it was being built, was streaming the final concert of the tour live on the internet. What was 9pm there was 10am here in London, and I would be at work in a place where one definitely could not stream music. However, I unusually managed to take a Monday as leave, so would be able for the first time to enjoy a Neil Finn concert while turning up at the last minute with tea and toast. I recommend it.I was intrigued by the thought of mixing Paul Kelly’s earthy songwriting with Neil Finn’s more ethereal craft. They’re a similar age but Paul was making records a bit earlier. I have two Paul Kelly albums and have always respected him, but couldn’t easily sing any of those songs, and vaguely recall thinking that he sometimes sounded a bit too country for me. He’s generally folkier or verging on acceptable bluegrass or rock, mixing in other genres, and he strikes me now as something like a Woody Guthrie character who you would not be surprised to find sleeping rough on a freight train, a modern hobo. I’m not sure why I have that impression; his grandfather was apparently an Argentine opera singer at La Scala, Count Ercole Filippini, but the image works. He’s the sixth of nine children, was born in a taxi, and writes in the basic, descriptive style of country songs, such as ‘They got married early, never had no money, then when he got laid off, they really hit the skids’ (To Her Door) or ‘She catches taxis, he likes walking to the station. She goes to parties; he goes with her just to please her’. His songwriting is intimate storytelling in simple language; he tells it like it is, but wraps it all up in an appealing package that transforms his conversation into poetry. Neil’s style is more outright poetry, hitting on ideas you wish you’d had that make you pause and ponder, placing beautiful words carefully together so they delicately cause shock and awe, with more stunningly gorgeous tunes than many other humans can dream of creating in a lifetime, and happily they keep on coming.
I’ve often thought how fortunate I am that the two singer/songwriters I most adored as a youth have never stopped creating and performing; I don’t have to wait for the Finns to appear at the Rewind festival, paunchy and bald with their name slightly altered to avoid the legal battles as only half the band has agreed to reform. I knew how to pick ‘em; they still offer everything I admired back then.Yet here is the breathtaking opportunity to enjoy something new and special. Not, sadly, a new Neil Finn album—although I can pray they release a live album from these shows but I’ve heard no whisper of it—but a new venture, a creative thought, of putting two impressive songwriters together. Not in the overly dry way that the latest series of Songwriters’ Circle brought three people (including Neil with Janis Ian and a frankly bratty Ryan Adams) together, with one performing their own song, then the next doing theirs, then the next, with barely any interaction and no warmth. Not even in the better early series, where the other singers (Neil played with the incredible Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera and Graham Gouldman of 10cc) joined in each other songs. This concert topped that in that the singers sometimes traded songs. Paul Kelly sang most of Neil’s Four Seasons in One Day, and Neil sang Paul’s Shoes Under My Bed. Yet that sparked no feeling of disappointment or resentment in me as I might expect, like being cheated that you can’t hear your hero sing your favourite song. I’m not a Jessie J fan, for instance, but when at Glastonbury she let a kid from the audience sing the whole of her main hit, Price Tag, I thought (as a television viewer) that I’d feel ripped off if I’d paid to and fought my way to the stage in vain to see Jessie J perform that, although no one else seemed to mind. Happily, the Kelly-Finn arrangement worked wonderfully; each song was a reward regardless of who sang it.
The production was slick, as well. The best seats in the house were not in the house at all. I thought they might have stuck a static camera high above the stage that let us peer into this world, taking whatever we could get. But it looked like a feature film that someone had spent days editing together. Perfect camera angles—no mistakes where someone walks into shot or you can’t see past a mike stand, focusing on the right singer and right instrument at the right time, the lighting worked wonderfully, it moved seamlessly from one shot to the next, there was no aching to see something that was off screen at the time; it was perfect. Yet I experience that sort of annoyance regularly when watching shows on the BBC that were a year in the making. I know this was about the fifth show at the Opera House and the last night of the tour, so the producers had had practice, but I doff my cap to them almost as much as I do to the performers.The performers were not just these two geniuses, but Neil’s younger son Elroy on drums (how did he get so big so quickly?), Paul’s nephew Dan Kelly, a singer-songwriter himself, on electric guitar, and a wonderful woman on bass called Zoe Hauptmann, who provided perfect backing vocals and just the right level of subtle support without turning the spotlight on herself at all. Neil and Paul switched between guitar and piano/keyboards, with Paul adding harmonica in a more beautiful way than I have heard before.
But enough—a had no intention of starting a wittering introduction before leading into my wittering comments, bashed out while watching the webcast unfold, so they’re far from poetic; it’s more of a useful recollection for me to revisit in future. I doubt they will be of interest to anyone else, but as they’re done, I’ll post them; perhaps someone who couldn’t watch the webcast will have their interest piqued by the setlist and find time to watch it before 17 April. Anyone else can look away now. But I highly recommend watching the concert. I would still gladly buy it on DVD given the opportunity, despite my current poverty.
As the concert didn’t start at 10am on the dot, I took a chance on racing for a cup of tea, which caused me to miss the grand entrance, which probably would have moved my soppy self to tears with the sense of grand occasion. Even worse, they’d started with the stunning Crowded House classic Four Seasons in One Day, but I’d not missed much. It was glorious, with Neil on piano, having started the first verse, and Paul taking over with his slightly more nasal tone, which really worked—and he sang the line with the bad word in it (I’m a prude), which I realised later was no big deal for him. Neil, using a little electric keyboard on the top of the piano, played a ‘harpsichord’ solo, which suited the song perfectly. It was a fantastic arrangement and I was impressed with the seamless camera work and direction, plenty of amazing close-ups but not the up-your-nostrils tight shots bafflingly favoured by the British television companies now. We could see exactly what we wanted when we wanted it; I had no complaints at all.They were all dressed for the occasion, with Neil in a sharp dark grey suit (without a tie, natch) and Paul in a smart dark brown one and matching trilby. When they finished, the behatted one said, ‘We’re live tonight—not just here but all over the world’. They proceeded to name exotic sounding places, and I didn’t realise that Paul Kelly’s were all Australian, perhaps Aboriginal names, until Neil pointed that out. Paul had toured Australia extensively as a youngster, which perhaps lends itself well to my vision of him as a Woody Guthrie type hobo. Paul mentioned that it was early in America and late in New Zealand, sparking Neil to add that New Zealanders all stayed up late because night-time was a magic time in New Zealand, and that no one goes to work in New Zealand, as ‘there’s no point’, which got lots of laughter. Paul explained that they would be kind of morphing during the show, that ‘sometimes I’m going to be Neil, and Neil’s going to be me’, which had Neil’s peppy voice punch in with, ‘That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?’ Paul introduced the ‘all-singing family band’, starting with the ‘son of my eldest brother’ on guitar: Dan Kelly. He introduced Neil’s son on the drums by saying ‘in Spanish, they call him ‘the King’. Not Liam then. The younger Finn: Elroy. As bassist Zoe wasn’t strictly family, he suggested that she might just be if you looked back as far as the Vikings. (I believe Zoe’s married to drummer Evan Mannell, who toured with the They Will Have Their Way celebration of the Finns’ music, after the cover albums.) It was lovely to see the evening would be a family affair, with no room for discomfort about unfamiliar band members. Paul then introduced the person on piano, guitar and keyboards, who ‘wrote half the songs tonight’: Neil Finn, who in turn introduced ‘someone on centre stage who was about to sing one of his finest songs’, Paul Kelly. Paul then muttered, gesturing towards Dan, ‘His uncle’ as though that was the only way he could excuse his being there in the spotlight. He came across as sweetly modest throughout, not at all the image I’d had for him.
He burst into a punch number, ‘Before Too Long’, with Neil adding some stonking piano. I don’t have this song and need to get it; it was great fun, real foot-tapping stuff. It was apparently a surprise hit for Kelly in 1986, the single from the debut album of Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls. (A debut double album? That’s brave.) The band name was apparently a reference to Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, later changed to ‘Paul Kelly and the Messengers’ to remove any suspicion of racism.Afterwards, Neil moved to the front and strapped on a guitar, said again how he really loved that last song, and seemed about to entertain us with his famous banter, then said, ‘Oh, let’s just play the next song; what the hell.’ Elroy kicked in with an intro to She Will Have Her Way, a single from Neil’s first solo album, 1998’s Try Whistling This, which I seem to recall being slightly underwhelmed by at the time. The music video comforted me with the usual Finn humour, spoofing the B-movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, but I guess I expect anything by the Finns to spin the earth and give the sun a break in lighting it. Sometimes their albums are growers. Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men was similar, initially unworshipped despite some jaw-droppingly beautiful songs on it, one of which was played later this evening. It all suggests that Neil Finn is ahead of his time and produces seminal material that we don’t recognise as such until we catch up. This song is treated like a classic at Neil Finn concerts and rather deserves to be thought of in that vein, although it’s no I Got You or Don’t Dream It’s Over. It was marvellous with this great band, with Neil muttering ‘I’d like to know what’s on her mind’ as Paul sang the title line over him. Sadly, here was the first break in transmission for us; initially a quick skip, then an unforgivingly long freeze, but I was surprised that all had gone so well until now. When we returned, there was a long awful electric guitar solo by Neil (sorry—‘awful’ simply because I’m not a fan of these; they remind me of 70s prog rock, I get bored and wish they’d get on with the meat of the song, but I know I’m alone in these feelings) so I ran for another quick cup of tea. I should be ashamed, I know.
Paul then commended Neil and his guitar work (I told you I was alone in my prejudice) and said they were going to do a brace of old-timey love songs, as when he wrote the song, he’d pictured it as a parlour song written in the 30s. He started For the Ages, a sweet song (‘Darling, you’re one for the ages; I’m glad you live here in mine’). Zoe’s backing vocals suited it perfectly, and at the end Neil, at the piano, said to the audience ‘I think I heard you singing; it’s an opportunity too good to pass up’, so he asked them to join in with him (I didn’t join in from home) and led them through the chorus, accompanied only by his chiming piano until eventually Paul and the others joined in to finish the uplifting love song.Neil praised how roadie Rowan had just walked on the stage and tidied thing up, saying he was from Neil’s hometown of Te Awamutu (people cheered; Split Enz and Crowded House fans know the Finns are from there thanks to mentions in Mean to Me and Haul Away). He said there were only 7,600 people left in Te Awamutu now that they’d gone. This song was in a similar vein, Neil said, to the last, maybe not from the 30s though it was coming from a similar place, called Not the Girl You Think You Are, the single from Crowded House’s first greatest hits compilation. For the first time, I could almost hear the 1930s in it and picture Neil singing behind a vintage ribbon microphone. This version was scintillating and sleepy, mostly Neil on vocals and piano with his son brushing the snares. There was another glitch in the streaming but it was brief.
After the cheers (the audience was so quietly civilised; they’d applaud for a bit, then wait in silence), Paul moved to the piano with the electric keyboard on top. Neil joked about seeing Paul return to his roots, the synthesiser, quipping that he was a big Kraftwerk fan. He then asked Paul if he had been in Adelaide when Boy George came to town. Paul smiled sweetly and quietly said he thought he’d left Adelaide by the time Boy George had come to town, but offered as interesting trivia that his sisters (including the one who is a nun?) had been there to see the Beatles, which for Adelaide had set a record for the proportion of the population turning out. Neil welcomed Steve to the stage (who looked a bit like Elroy, or maybe all the youngsters with long thick hair look alike to me now) on what sounded like ‘barboset’. That’s not right; that sounds more like a monkey, but I can’t dig out my old CD to read the liner notes as the Fs are inaccessible right now. The monkey thing made a fantastic familiar sound effect, a bit like an introduction to a 30s show on the wireless repeatedly getting cut off in its prime, with Neil out front on acoustic guitar, and they all performed a lovely Sinner from Neil’s first solo album. Zoe was on stand-up bass, supplying firm yet subtle complementary vocals, and Paul did some great flourishes on piano. I gather he even plays the trumpet, but sadly did not on this occasion.All changed during the applause and ensuing polite silence. Paul returned to the front with his guitar, where he seemed more comfortable, and said ‘It’s good having Neil Finn in your band because he can sing the really high bits. He’s got a really high bit coming up.’ Neil mused that he should call his band ‘Neil Finn and the Highbits.’ Neil then indeed started with a high bit, a rather ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight’ type of wailing at the beginning of Paul Kelly’s marvellous song Careless. ‘How many cats in New York City….How many ways can you lose a friend. I’ve been careless.’ I was starting to realise where I went wrong with Paul Kelly. The two albums I have that I liked okay but weren’t particularly indelible on my mind didn’t have all his best songs. I certainly have a new appreciation for him and will endeavour to give him the attention he deserves, and order one of his greatest hits albums once I get paid. (And maybe I can hope that one day BBC4 will show the 2012 documentary on him, Stories of Me). Watching him perform reminded me of watching the modern James Taylor. Kelly comes across as modestly sheepish and kind, not acknowledging the wonder of the songs he has created, and he’s brilliant live. ‘I know I’ve been careless; I lost my tenderness’ he sang in the delightfully catchy song, adding harmonica as well as guitar and vocals. This song was so impressively smooth, I can’t wait to get hold of it although I fear nothing can live up to that performance with this fantastic band, particularly Neil and the Highbits. We did, sadly, have two unfortunate glitches in the stream near the end.
Without pausing, the band moved onto another wonderful Paul Kelly song: Leaps and Bounds, with everyone coming together on the catchy refrain ‘I remember’. Neil was still on piano and belting out backing vocals with Zoe, then taking some lines himself. Paul bowed towards his nephew as Dan started an electric guitar solo. The arrangement worked fantastically with this band, and Paul finished by uttering ‘I remember a few things’ to huge cheers from the audience.Neil then tormented some crowd members à la Dame Edna Everage (recently a Masterchef judge for Comic Relief), asking, ‘Are you looking for a seat you guys? There are two seats over there. Or are you dancing?’ He asked them to ‘Show us a move’ but figured that they must need music, so he played a bit on the acoustic guitar. The impressive cameras even caught the audience member (wearing 1970s overalls) doing a bit of a wonky sway for him. Neil began to tell what was clearly going to be a fascinating story about writing this next song and what happens when the family gathers for an occasion like a funeral, and given my interest in all things Finn, I was captivated, so of course the stream cut out then for a bit. He ended whatever the great tale was by referring to the need for someone to step up to mike on such occasions. ‘This song is really about that.’ Hmmm. The magnificent Won’t Give In could never be as perfect without Tim Finn joining in, but Neil turned to his son to start the song, and the lovely harmonies were still supplied by Finn family in Elroy, as well as Kelly the Younger and Zoe. Horribly, the stream cut out again, then returned as Paul at the piano took the second verse. He looked down at the piano so regularly, I assumed there was a lyric sheet there, but perhaps it was more that he seemed unsure of his fingering. He let a cute little shy smile creep out occasionally, which made him seem a lovely person. Just at the build-up bit, the stream froze again, quite a bit during this favourite song, but there were otherwise some wonderful shots of Neil close up with a lovely blue background, providing a fine picture of the scene in Sydney. Paul switched to tambourine at the end as Neil went a bit mad, swinging around on the acoustic guitar, headbanging with his Beatles-like flop-head. Amidst the flashing white spotlights, young Kelly on electric guitar joined in the headbanging with long curly hair, and Neil stirred up applause for his prime contribution by announcing his name at the end.
Neil changed to his red electric guitar, began to explain something about his writing that last song and writing the next song with his brother Tim, so of course the stream froze. Aggghh. He then said he hoped there was someone watching in….an audience member prompted him with the name of where they were from, and Neil said: ‘But you’re here, you’re not watching from Westport.’ The stream agonisingly froze during the familiar Finn intro on guitar, and later during Only Talking Sense. Zoe, on stand-up bass, joined Dan Kelly on backing vocals; he was holding the mike and focusing on the smooth harmonies rather than playing guitar, while Paul played piano. Neil belted out, ‘You are afraid of me; that’s why you’re so unkind’ then led them all into more exquisite harmonies, earning big applause afterwards (calm, seated applause).Paul introduced his next song by saying—it sounded like-- it came from a pretty old ‘palm’ from centuries ago. I wondered if that was an Australian pronunciation of Psalm, but as he then referred to someone going to bed with his mistress, I thought perhaps not, but I am no expert. Neil joked that there would be no copyright issues then, and Paul said that was a good thing about writing with the dead. The spectral tune in question was New Found Year. Neil played piano. Paul was up front on acoustic guitar, with both the bearded and the thankfully now facial hair-less Finns providing harmonies on the chorus, with Zoe softly singing by second verse. Her electric bass performance was impressive, and I normally don’t even notice bass guitar (mind you, it’s sometimes difficult to notice bass until it isn’t there).
They started Crowded House’s gorgeous Into Temptation with Paul on vocals, though the stream paused on a close-up of him looking so sincere. I really enjoyed his performance, this James Taylor look with an edgy hobo feel about him. The setting turned deep blue and moody for this intense song, which unfortunately skipped forward as the stream caught up. Paul gave it a slightly different air, as Neil kicked in with high harmonies as he played acoustic guitar. Paul gestured expressively with his hands, revealing a harmonica in one that he eventually played gently, which worked well. ‘The guilty get no sleep’ was delivered as though from a pulpit in a Sunday service. His delivery was so awesome that I didn’t resent missing out on hearing Neil Finn sing his masterpiece (one of them), and I usually can’t bear covers of songs when the original was by a generally unsurpassable talent, but this was a tremendous interpretation. At the end, Paul practically whispered through a hand cupped over his mouth, ‘Don’t tell’ in an almost disconcerting yet not too sinister way before blowing on harmonica, and Neil’s guitar trickled down as a starry pattern appeared on the beautiful backdrop, the only thing showing then. At the end, the audience erupted into huge cheers but Paul barely acknowledged it, more out of apparent shyness than arrogance, and everyone but Neil walked off the stage.Neil, seated at piano, paid tribute to Paul by saying that he might have to re-think how he sang that song now. He said he chose the next song to reciprocate because it was one he had always been fond of back when he lived in Melbourne, and it was particularly enhanced by thoughts of his dear late mother, when she was watching TV, perhaps Coronation Street or the All Blacks. (An interesting variety, I thought). He said she’d say of All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, ‘He can put his shoes under my bed any time he wants’. Neil said she loved his smile ‘and I love his smile, too.’ So with her in mind, he said as he played one note on the piano, the audience now dripping in expectation, and—the stream froze. When he returned, he delivered a stunning song, magically hitting the line (and title) “(You Can Put Your) Shoes Under My Bed anytime” with a new resonance. I thought he was alone, creating this lovely, slow, heartfelt beauty, until I heard Paul’s enchanting harmonica. Who knew a harmonica could be so lovely, ringing out like a lush French Horn instead of jarring with scattergun brash notes? We were treated to an excellent shot showing Paul playing piano layered over—but not obscuring—the image of Neil. Then the stream froze a few times, only for split seconds. Neil had his eyes closed as he sang much of the song, captivating us with ‘Who of us can tell what is real, or what’s fantastic? No one else can have such grace and be so spastic.’ (Maybe that’s not PC anymore but the meaning it had when I was young made sense in the song.) Paul added divine backing vocals to his own song, the beauty interrupted again by a break in the streaming, before soothing harmonica filled the hall again. What a wonderful performance, so moving. I wanted to applaud from London. Neil and Paul, lit in spotlights, beamed at each other, and as Neil stood up, Paul announced him to encourage more applause, adding ‘He’s got that one.’
Neil disappeared and Paul put a harmonica holder around his neck and began picking out a gentle dark tune with a folky feel on his acoustic guitar. He used his down to earth approach to paint vividly the image of a crowd of exhausted impatient kids crammed into a car for an unbearable journey after a tiring day, wishing they were already home, when something jarring happens. It started innocently descriptive: ‘My kid sister told Jim he’d better quit it or die. It had been a long day in the countryside, playing with the cousins on my mother’s side’. Later in the song, the child sees his mother sob --the stream froze a few times and cut into the awesome storytelling—and then he even sees tears on his father’s face, so frightening for a child. ‘They Thought I Was Asleep,’ he repeated. Then he blasted the harmonica over his twinkling guitar, and eventually Zoe’s stand-up bass came into focus. It was a captivating soft song, even just the parts I heard, and one felt for the fear of the child. Cheers started and the stream stopped, ‘til we were back with Zoe looking fondly at him; it was hard not to see the alarmed child standing there. This bewitchingly descriptive song was like something you might find on Loudon Wainwright III’s History album.When the paused stream kick-started again, the others were on the stage. Neil was playing a familiar intro on his acoustic guitar as Paul blew a long note on his harmonica. Neil sang hauntingly a late (original) Crowded House song, Private Universe, and Zoe, later adding electric bass, joined young Kelly in fetching harmonies. Paul sang the second verse, giving it a slightly different spin. I remember feeling some discomfort when I first heard it in 1993, such a vast change from the beloved Woodface, , and parts of it vaguely reminded me of the type of 70s Moody Blues music I was forced to endure for my then husband, but this was obviously vastly superior, very moody, the sound of unrequited or cursed love. Sometimes harmonies can be sickly, and I tend to refer to such blends as ‘too Alan Parsons’ (nearly wrote ‘Alan Partridge’ there, which would be confusing). But these were perfect and soothing throughout the evening, perhaps because most of the band were family—all of the band if you include the Vikings. Here, Neil sang, “It feels like nothing matters in our private universe” as his son Elroy appeared beside him, also strumming the acoustic guitar instead of the drums. Paul delivered wonderful layered harmonies with the others, standing stiffly without his guitar, then took a verse. I felt like I’d never heard the lines ‘Birds talk to me, they talk to me’ until Paul said them so sincerely in his storytelling stance. It worked wonderfully and garnered big applause (but still, who’d have thunk a Sydney audience would be more calmly civilised than a London one?)
Neil changed to his red electric guitar, plucking at it almost randomly with his unbuttoned cuffs, and the stream suddenly cut ahead to reveal that we were into the brilliant Split Enz classic One Step Ahead, one of Neil’s early successes. I adore the proper intro to that song so felt heartbroken to have missed it. Zoe played stand-up bass, smiling almost as much as I was, and I assumed Paul was playing the mad keyboard bit but later realised that must have been Dan on electric guitar, as Paul appeared mid-stage shaking the Tim-bells (ie those Tim Finn played in the original) in between long single harmonica notes that blended into the song well. He stood board stiff, his left arm straight down at his side, watching Neil. I hissed like a cat when the stream froze again.Then a rapid change kicked in with booming drums that almost sounded like Adam Ant’s Goody Two Shoes, though I know I should be struck down for that, with Paul calling out like a Native American. He seemed much more comfortable and animated behind his electric guitar, and Neil busied himself on rapid plinky-plonk piano before later moving his right hand to the electric keyboards. ‘In the middle of a dream, I lost my shirt, I pawned my ring,’ Paul sang. Elroy looked like he was edging towards a quick solo and the stream froze for a second, then kicked us to Neil on the keyboard with Zoe adding a neat electric bass rhythm. Young Kelly and Neil seemed to enjoy their busy backing vocals on what seemed like another fun railcar hobo-like song from Paul. Paul smiled as he watched Neil bopping his head to this lively number, then they finished Dumb Things to really huge cheers and whistles. This 1989 song apparently reached no 16 in the US Billboard Modern Rock chart, which I completely missed, but I was in London for much of that year and listening to quite different music.
Paul changed the tempo by gently strumming the guitar, smiling as he sang a slower number that still allowed the foot to tap, and the others were in darkness. Paul sounded like Cat Stevens or Bob Dylan as he sang his song Deeper Water. After just a verse and chorus, the lights went down and one would think it was a beautiful quick song, but no one applauded as they knew better. After a moment, the full electric band kicked in with a sort of Rebel Rebel guitar and Neil took a verse while alternating between electric keyboards and piano. The stage came alive with a rockier version of the song as Paul wandered around the stage, later leaving the vocals up to his colleague Neil, smiling and bowing towards him. The lyrics were charming, painting a portrait of a child feeling braver in the ocean waves with his father’s hand providing safety, and going through various life changes in deeper water, but then it gets sad, so it went quiet, with just Neil on piano and a few quiet taps from Elroy. Then Paul sang again like it was a different song, happily animated, with Neil bopping at the piano as he let out a whoop. The stream then kicked out for an age. What fun it had been until then.We sadly missed a great story from Neil during that ‘blackout’; it sounded like a reference to the teenager’s ‘successful experience’ in the back seat of a car in Paul’s previous song. Neil said he had a different experience in the back seat of the car that didn’t work out that well, but he wouldn’t go into it because Elroy was there. Elroy piped in with ‘That hasn’t stopped you on other nights.’ His father laughed and admitted that that was true, ‘And you can give as good as you get.’ He asked the audience to join in since he’d heard them sing well earlier, and he led them into the marvellous Better Be Home Soon. The audience was shown singing the chorus, in light shirts without thick coats, hats, scarves and brollies like us in London, and then Neil again played piano with one hand and the organ with the other, with Paul on guitar in the other spotlight, and the full band adding to the magic. Neil sat sideways on the what looked like a rolling office desk chair rather than a piano stool, and he did partly spin around in it later. The harmonies were delightful, and a close up on Neil showed no perspiration despite being 90 minutes into the concert. The song finished beautifully and Neil stood to applaud the audience, saying ‘Beautifully in tune, Sydney. Thank you.’
Paul, jokingly resentful, muttered ‘You and your choruses! This next song doesn’t have a chorus; it doesn’t repeat anything.’ Neil encouraged him with, ‘the whole thing is a chorus, Paul’. The stream froze so we missed the announcement of clearly a popular song whose mere mention thrilled the audience. Neil, still in encouraging mode, commended Paul for being able to ‘mention the name Roger, and that’s just brilliant. It’s good to get Roger into a song. I would venture a guess there’s never been another song with Roger in it unless it’s a bawdy ballad’. Paul giggled and said, ‘There we go; he’s turned’, then started another chatty real-life feel song about a convict missing out on the family Christmas. ‘Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas day. Please, don’t let ‘em cry for me’ and ‘I guess the brothers are driving down from Queensland and Stella’s flying in from the coast’, a normal family commentary put together in an artful way. ‘Who’s gonna make the gravy now? I bet it won’t taste the same. Just add flour, salt, a little red wine and don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang.’ These lyrics shouldn’t work but they painted a prized Paul Kelly portrait. ‘Tell ‘em all I’m sorry I screwed up this time.’ The song is called How to Make Gravy, and reminded me that Glenn Tilbrook wrote a song with a recipe for breakfast but it had fewer family ingredients, just foodie ones. Kelly’s song was energetic and fun and perhaps one to remember for an alternative Christmas compilation. Sadly, if they showed it, I missed Neil’s face when Paul called out ‘Roger’ a couple times (an innocent name), as I was listening from the other room for a moment, and didn’t even have to fight my way through crowds to get back to my seat.Without much pause, Neil moved up front with an electric guitar and started playing a blinding Distant Sun, but it was Paul Kelly who took the verses, and when Neil sang the chorus, he strained a bit to get to reach the notes it so I wondered if they’d changed the key for Paul. Neil accomplished everything, of course, and despite my not being a fan of long electric guitar solos, Neil’s was irresistible as he employed that cross step that had warmed me when I first saw the Don’t Dream It’s Over video, thrilled that Neil had risen from the ashes of Split Enz. This is another song that I didn’t appreciate as much as it deserved when it came out, as Crowded House had just reformed and this first big single had a lot to live up to, but it’s now deservedly greeted like a beloved classic. Neil finished with ‘And the dust laid on the ground’, which I’d never made out before.
The audience roared, no doubt with added nervousness as everyone put down their instruments and came up front and stood with their arms around each others’ shoulders. Neil stood in the centre of the line-up, his arms around his son and Paul, and they all bowed en masse, then raised a hand towards the lighting or cameras as people do in the theatre to give credit to contributors off stage, and then they left. The camera panned an audience of people who all appeared to be in their 50s, still clapping in too civilised a way for Australians. Although I’m not a technophobe, it still touched me a bit that they were applauding live at 11pm across the world in Sydney as I watched from my sofa in London at noon. Apart from some breaks in the stream, I’d watched what easily could have been a feature film of the concert produced and edited over a year. I love modern technology. Years from now, our kids will be laughing at how pitiful this was and wonder how we managed to go without X. But today, this was great and I was grateful.After a kindly brief wait, snow confetti began to fall in blue spotlights and one could just make out the band coming on beneath it. Paul put his brown hat back on, as one would in the snow. The ‘snow’ seemed like animation in a dreamy setting, and didn’t land on Paul or Neil, but it was evident on the stage floor. Neil played a synth-like orchestral intro on the keyboards and Paul, up front with his acoustic guitar, sang a wonderful, sincere slower song, a personal portrait painted again. ‘We were lovers once long ago’, he sang, eventually hitting the refrain, ’I’ll put on My Winter Coat’. Ah, snow, winter coat, I get it. A beat was skipped in the stream but the song stayed moody like a Leonard Cohen piece. Zoe was on stand-up bass and Elroy hit the hi-hat with a stick whilst shaking the bells with this right hand. The audience loved this truly atmospheric creation. Then the lights went up, many instruments were changed, and the stream agonisingly froze as Neil spoke.
Apart from calling Paul a pro, saying ‘I’m learning a lot’, Neil worried about his red wine, which had turned fizzy from the snow so he asked of a fresh one, telling Paul he wouldn’t need to worry about his own whisky as that would kill anything untoward. Paul quipped, ‘Got another hit for us, Neil?’ as he dried his warm head with a towel. Neil said, ‘Yes, it’s about time I wrote another one, isn’t it?’ and mysteriously goaded Paul to ‘Say it, say it’, but Paul just responded with a smile. They started another masterful song, Fall at Your Feet, stunning as always, with Zoe adding just the right level of backing vocals, and Paul dripping in some style with his grittier vocals, but turning to play by the drums during the higher parts (eg ‘Do you want my presence or need my health?’) before Neil’s lovely brief piano solo. The stream sadly skipped a beat, but it occurred to me that it offered probably the best view I’ve ever had at a Finn concert, although one of the Bush Hall gigs was close.The song earned huge cheers and Paul wandered towards Neil, whose attentions were diverted by a roadie perhaps delivering unfizzy wine, so Paul returned to the front and started strumming a tune that the audience immediately recognised. The stream froze twice, but I heard him sing ‘She said I’m not standing by to watch you slowly die, so watch me walking out the door’, which Neil sings with him. Paul then bluntly added ‘I’m walking out your f***ing door’, which may well have been jarring back in 1987, but To Her Door was his highest charting single, the first from the second album of Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, Under the Sun, an album I do have. The song has been listed as one of Australia’s Top 30 songs of all time. Another of his songs is called ‘Every F***ing City’, which is the refrain, so I guess Paul really is gritty. Here, Neil played up a storm on the piano, more of a Bruce Hornsby style with echoes of the part of Handbags and Gladrags that one associates with the original The Office. Paul moved towards his nephew during the latter’s electric guitar solo before going to jam with Neil’s son. It was another lively, upbeat song with a downbeat story but some unresolved hope at the end. Amazing.
Afterwards, Neil said it had been an incredible once-in-a-lifetime privilege to get deep inside Paul Kelly’s head and learn his songs, and to play ‘rollicking piano on them’ . Indeed. I wondered how anyone could follow his eloquence, and Paul thanked Neil for teaching him so many new chords. I don’t play guitar but everyone who plays with Neil Finn—even Roddy Frame, I seem to recall—refers to his many chords. ‘Neil only had to learn about five chords; I had to learn about 50,’ Paul said, and it was ‘like digging down into intricate plotwork’, which he loved. He said that, after having played 49 of the 50 chords so far, he was now going to play the next song, which kept him up at night worrying in a cold sweat. He then strummed perfectly the beloved intro to one of the greatest songs in the world, Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over, but hideously the stream then froze a few times. Neil sang it himself, as it may have been sacrilege otherwise even though Paul had managed to add new character to so many songs all evening, and Neil played the electric keyboards while Dan Kelly performed the electric guitar solo that I was thinking of with Neil’s cross-step earlier. The stream froze quite a bit during this masterpiece, albeit briefly. Neil held out the last ‘Hey’ for an age as the others went silent, and it felt such a privilege to be there…insofar as I was. The crowd at last went wild, everyone standing, but they all looked so much older than I would have expected. Still, they would have known Split Enz in the 70s before that masterful music reached me in the States, and they certainly knew Paul Kelly before most of us did, so their age made sense (plus the Aussie probably ages people faster). The group then walked off without a flourish, word or another unified bow, although Neil lingered a bit to wave to the standing audience. The crowd clapped in a unified beat and roared fairly quickly when presumably the band came on as the lights went down. It was 11.15pm there; the group had been playing over two hours. (In London, many of us would have had to sacrifice the rest of the concert for the sake of public transport and getting home. This was great.)Zoe played a rocking rhythm on the bass, lit by a flashing near-strobe lights, as Elroy joined in on drums. Neil played like a mad phantom on the electric keyboards, or a jamming zombie, and Paul faced him, whipping his fingers towards and back from Neil like a magician with Neil in his power. They all then sang together as Paul moved back up front with his acoustic guitar strapped on, but using his hands for expression rather than playing as he sang the verses of Love is the Law, a more poetic song than his usual great stories. He seemed to be preaching from the pulpit, but more like a convincing messiah than a vicar. Neil took over and sounded an amazing visionary himself: ‘Without love your life is useless’. Paul continued with meaningful pronouncements: ‘ Love is ever hopeful, never dreams that it can fail.’ A wild psychedelic middle with busy electric guitar and Neil’s organ (ie he played the electric keyboards) led this blinding number to a finish and to far too civilised yet appreciative applause from an audience outside of London.
Neil then bafflingly said to Paul, ‘You’ve already been so seriously ridiculed by the audience for that comment that I don’t feel I have to say anything’. I completely missed it owing to the stream breaking, and I believe he even referred to Paul using ‘the c-word’ and something else in the same sentence, but the stream cut out again as Neil apparently repeated whatever ‘in case you missed it’. The audience thought it hilarious in any case. Neil pointed out that Paul had even said all that live on the internet, so the two exchanged names of more exotic sounding places where we might be watching, Neil ending with ‘Scunthorpe’. He said we’d now go back to South Yarra to one morning, fresh out of bed, 25 years ago. They began the heavenly Split Enz classic Message to My Girl, which I’ve used as my text alert on my phone along with The Specials’ A Message to You, Rudy because I’m literal like that. Neil’s piano intro sounded…..well, let’s say that perhaps the piano was out of tune all of a sudden. His wide smile as he sang the stunning first verse acknowledged that he heard it as well. Perhaps it was the fizzy red wine. After he sang ‘now we wake up happy’—this is another ‘love in an enclave’ song, like Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars, a type of which I am always fond despite not being remotely romantic. I like the idea of shutting the world out. Then the stream froze. For ages. I was gutted as I worried that might be the end of it. I finally managed to catch the piano now sounding fine as Neil played the end solo, but then the stream frustratingly skipped ahead a few beats. I can watch the whole thing back later perhaps without interruption.During the huge cheers, Paul horribly announced that ‘We’re coming to our last song on our last show’, and he began to thank loads of people, particularly the crew and ‘the management side of things that really do a lot’. The stream froze until Neil, now up front with an acoustic guitar, thanked the agent they shared, Brett Murrihy, who suggested the idea of the joint tour. He also thanked his old Split Enz colleague Noel Crombie and someone else for creating the truly gorgeous backdrop, and Paul chimed in with thanks to Buddy Holly for this last song, Words of Love. A neat idea, I thought, with a tinge of disappointment that we would not hear another Neil classic—or be introduced to another overlooked Paul gem, for that matter. But the harmonies were fun, with Neil initially sounding like he was imitating Buddy Holly before booming through with his natural voice later. The cover was brightly fun, with Zoe on stand-up bass, and a great classic guitar sound filling the house. Neil crossed the whole stage during Dan’s brief electric guitar solo so that he and Paul were flanking Dan, which would have made a fantastic picture if I were there to take it. They went back to their mikes for the end of far too brief a song, but it was fun. Neil beamed, thanked the whole band as they went off, but he and Paul stayed put. Paul seemed to bend forward to light a blue lantern, one of several now lining the edge of the stage. A clue.
Happily, Neil said that as it was a special occasion, being the last night, they’d simply have to leave us with another song. He gently strummed something, got the vocals wrong and laughed, saying they’d have to start again, and that really doing that was just that they were reluctant to leave. He started again and the picture froze for ages. When it resumed, they were singing a refreshingly gentle Moon River, utterly fantastic. Paul picked up a verse when Neil finished, standing starkly still looking lost again without a guitar, but clutching his harmonica. I’m glad Paul had the ‘huckleberry friend’ line as it suited him perfectly. Naturally, he played the harmonica solo as Neil strummed along beautifully. The camerawork was great, showing both men in full profile with an overlay close-up of Paul playing harmonica. As they both sang the last verse together, the stream froze. For an age. There was briefly a bit of sound for a line or so, then nothing. Hideously, a line came onscreen saying ‘An error occurred. Please try again later!’ It was agony. When finally I got at least sound back, it was Louis Armstrong, I think, playing behind the sound of people leaving a great venue. So I had missed the very beginning and the amazing end. But I was thrilled that the stream lasted for most of it, apart from split second glitches, and I can watch it again later when I have more than two hours to spare. I was there to see most of it live, and was exquisite. I would pay a fortune for a DVD and soundtrack of that concert and yet I got to take part for free, without having to run for the train afterwards. I have seen Tim Finn play live with Kiwi super-artists Bic Runga and Dave Dobbyn—outstanding—and in a sense, I have now seen Neil Finn play live with Paul Kelly, something I so wanted to be a part of when I heard about the tour. I gather 19,000 watched the concert live online. Neil had said he felt privileged, but the privilege was surely ours.Thank you Sydney Opera House, now empty whilst everyone sleeps, for streaming this and not even charging for it, and doing such an incredible, slick job of it. Thank you Brett the agent for a master stroke idea. Thank you to the performers for not being catty about rights but willing to share with the world. And what a gift they shared.
See for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_Us3H72U4Q