Paul Kelly and Paul Grabowsky review

PAUL KELLY & PAUL GRABOWSKY
City Recital Hall, August 5
★★★★½

Singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and pianist Paul Grabowsky have been part of the cultural furniture since the 1980s. Yet on this night, dominated by songs from their 2020 studio album Please Leave Your Light On, we heard them like we never had before on stage.

The festival-ruling folkie and the jazzer from Tonight Live with Steve Vizard were transformed into a classic torch duo, remaking Kelly’s most lovelorn songs like Frank Sinatra and his long-time arranger Nelson Riddle might have done.

Paul Kelly and Paul Grabowsky at a 2020 online performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre.Credit:MRC

In fact, opener True to You, with Grabowsky’s stark minor chords and Kelly’s Gershwin-esque lyrical flourishes, evoked a Sinatra saloon ballad such that Kelly had to assure us he wasn’t trying to compare himself to Ol’ Blue Eyes.

However, this evening made clear that, like Sinatra, Kelly’s greatness as a singer lies not in technical virtuosity but in his ability to inhabit a lyric. And, with Grabowsky’s help, to find new ways into old material.

Take third song Petrichor, originally recorded with a country-rock sound in 2017. On this night there was just Grabowsky playing with delicate beauty, encouraging from Kelly a deeper performance where the pay-off lines – “I don’t need you, but I sure want you” – seemed to mist in the air like the chemical reaction behind the title.

It wasn’t just the pianist re-energising the singer. The sombre, autumnal outlook of most of this set had Grabowsky playing with a restraint not always found in jazz virtuosos. The perfectly judged notes behind Time and Tide evoked sand through an hourglass, the woozy trills of You’re 39, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine were a clever echo of the pop-song source material to which Kelly added 23 years.

Grabowsky didn’t hold back on closer Dumb Things, given a surprisingly effective rock’n’roll treatment where his glissandos were like a hot knife through butter. Earlier, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 became a stomping, tempo-shifting beast under his hands, with Kelly having to watch his foil carefully to keep the Bard’s Australian-accented puns in their place.

Kelly donned his guitar to mark last week’s passing of Archie Roach with a strident Rally Round the Drum, while Grabowsky turned Down City Streets, written for Roach by his late wife Ruby Hunter, into a reflective instrumental that had people dabbing at their eyes – and not for the only time on a night where the power of partnership prevailed.

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