For some, Colin Hay might have last been seen accompanied by a vegomite sandwich and a muscle-bound Brussels native during Men at Work’s MTV-fueled heyday as Australian pop ambassadors. That troupe’s run was short but packed: Three albums in six years, the first two of which — Business as Usual and Cargo reached Number One and Three on the charts, respectively, powered by Top Ten hits “Who Can It Be,” “Down Under,” “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake.” But those songs (and those years) are just one swatch in Hay’s musical tapestry, which first took shape when he would sneak Beatles and Kinks records out of his parents’ record store in Scotland and currently includes regular appearances at Los Angeles singer-songwriter haven Largo. Hay’s life, musical and otherwise, is the basis of Man @ Work, a “one-man theatrical experience,” that he will being to New York City’s Village Theater for a ten-night engagement in May.
The show shares its title with Hay’s terrific 2003 album that offered a handful of new tracks alongside some acoustic re-recordings of Men at Work nuggets, which Hay says just returned to their initial form. “It was really an attempt to bring the past up to the present,” he says. “These songs are now in their original format. They were really acoustic songs that we built up with Men at Work. It’s just presenting them like they were before they were famous. The nice thing about stripping them back down is that they either stand up as pop songs, or they don’t. I like the fact that you don’t really associate them with any particular period of time now.”
Whether listeners have been with Hay the whole ride (he’s released eight solo recordings since 1987), or checked out after Men at Work’s third album, 1985’s Two Hearts, was released to indifference, the live presentation of Man @ Work puts two decades of his witty, hooky pop into a cohesive format, peppered with tales of travel — from Scotland to Australia to the U.S. — and stories of successes, some acute and international, others more modest. For those who lost touch with Hay along the way, the show fills in the missing years.
“I just found over the years that it’s very hard to change people’s perception of what it is that you do,” he says. “So I started telling stories to try to give it some kind of timeline and just let people know what’s happened to me in the last twenty years. When you have those rarified moments of celebrity and Number One records, you think, ‘This is my life now.’ But often the fall from grace, if you will, is more interesting than when you’re at the lofty peak. And so my show is all about that. It’s all about what you in fact have at this particular time, not what you had ten years ago or what you want to have five or ten years from now. At the end of the night you’ve hopefully shared something that’s quite present and tangible and hopefully nourishing in some way. It’s just stories interspersed with songs. My stories and my songs.”
Though the core stories carry over from night to night, Hay says the show isn’t tightly scripted, allowing for malleability based on his audience. “There’s just things a New York audience will appreciate that are different than an audience in Glasgow,” he says. “It works best when there’s some sort of spontaneity to it. You can involve the audience more.”
Hay, who also hopes to work on a new collection of songs later this year, has enjoyed a run of rediscovery in the States of late. Compass Records issued Man @ Work late last year, getting it better North American distribution than he’s enjoyed on previous solo releases. Last summer Hay toured the U.S. as part of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. And two years ago, he appeared on NBC’s Scrubs. The show’s star, Zach Braff, was a regular at Hay’s Largo gigs, and pitched Hay’s tunes to the producers. “It’s frustrating to do albums that you think are worth listening to, but it’s just so difficult to cut through,” Hay says. “So being on television is amazing, because so many people see it. There was too much traffic on my Web site after that show aired, and we had to close it down. But they’ve been very good to me.”