Australian Songwriter Paul Kelly Sings the Hits, from A to Z

paul kelly australia
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
Paul Kelly performs last year in Australia.
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A stood for "Adelaide," singer-songwriter Paul Kelly's ode to his hometown in Australia, and "Anastasia Changes Her Mind." The B's included the wry warning "Be Careful What You Pray For" and "Before Too Long," one of Kelly's best early songs, from his 1986 Australian double album, Gossip. And the D's ran the range from "Deeper Water," with its opening memory of Kelly's dad teaching him how to swim, to the rock-bottom account "Dumb Things." The latter was originally cut as seething electric garage for 1988's Under the Sun. But at Rockwood Music Hall in New York on September 26th, Kelly played it as solo self-recrimination – "I lost my shirt/I pawned my rings/I've done all the dumb things" – with his nephew, singer-guitarist Dan Kelly, adding amp jangle and plaintive harmonies.

This show, the first of two at Rockwood and the end of a brief U.S. visit, was "the speed-dial version," as Paul put it, of From A-Z, a live alphabetical retrospective of Kelly's life's work as Australia's Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello combined, in narrative candor, trap-door wit and devotion to rock's country, folk and blues roots. Kelly was already a welcome alternative in the New Wave Eighties to the Joe Jackson-Graham Parker model – less acidic, with strong local color in his tales – with his band Paul Kelly and the Dots and on his 1985 solo debut, Post, which included one of this show's F's: the homesick ballad "From St. Kilda to Kings Cross."

All of His Best, Up to L
There is no evening long enough to cover the best of Kelly. Tonight he only made it to L, with M-Z promised for the second Rockwood show. Even that's not enough: Kelly usually does From A-Z as a four-gig stand. (He will be back in the U.S. next year and plans more full-length engagements.) But even in this hastened form, Kelly's storytelling – framed by pithy guitar hooks, with a grainy conversational magnetism in his singing – revealed his unique spin on a world of echoes: Hank Williams, Willie Dixon, Paul Simon, Lou Reed. Before performing 1989's "Everything's Turned White," Kelly acknowledged his debt to Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water, So Close to Home" (Kelly used that title in his chorus). And Kelly explained how the lesson of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" – how to write a holiday classic about absence and missing – inspired "How to Make Gravy," a tender letter from a jailbird who won't be home for the family feast.

Much of what Kelly played at Rockwood is on the two-CD set, Greatest Hits: Songs From the South Volumes 1 & 2 (Gawd Aggie) a previous Australian release out here on October 25th. The A-Z Recordings (Gawd Aggie) is an 8-CD anthology, released in Oz last year, of live recordings from Kelly's alphabet shows over the past half-dozen years. And Kelly's 2010 autobiography, How to Make Gravy: A-Z, A Mongrel Memoir (Penguin Global), is his engaging way with a stage anecdote gone long. The book is especially strong on how and why the songs get written, like the riff analysis in Keith Richards' Life minus the knives and rock-pirate action. (The A-Z Recordings and How to Make Gravy are available at Amazon.)

Leaps and Bounds
Missing from the D's at Rockwood was "Darling It Hurts," a Sixties-beat dynamo from Gossip with its chorus pun on Darlinghurst, a Sydney neighborhood. But representing L, E and F were the exuberant "Leaps and Bounds," the hilariously despairing "Every Fucking City" and a succinct example of Kelly's ingenuity with opposites, "From Little Things Big Things Grow," from 1991's Comedy. The melody is a lullabye, the rhythm is a waltz. But the subject is moral strength: an aboriginal man who fought an entire government for the return of ancestral lands – and won.

There was also a new song, so new Kelly hasn't formally cut it yet (although there's a live version in the A-Z box). "I Keep Coming Back for More" was a dark bluesy thing about good intentions, punishing returns and a stubborn hope for just reward. Those are endless subjects, and they are already in a lot of Kelly's songs. But he hasn't run out of compelling variations – or letters.