Paul Kelly’s Ways & Means reveals two sides of an Aussie giant



By Steve Newton

When the Straight reaches Paul Kelly by phone at a New York hotel room, he’s just hours away from playing Manhattan’s famed Knitting Factory. The Aussie rock great has been in the Big Apple for a couple of days, mostly doing radio interviews, but he got out on the town the previous night and saw a Brazilian group at a little bar in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighbourhood.

He never learned the band’s name but it doesn’t matter.

“I just love Brazilian music,” the 49-year-old singer-songwriter raves. “I think Brazilian music will be played in heaven. It’s got everything that you want outta music, you know? The rhythm and harmony and feeling.”

One can safely argue that Kelly has used those elements–along with melody and lyrical craftsmanship–to fine effect himself. A major force on the Australian music scene since the 1985 release of Post, his haunting collection of pared-down acoustic songs, Kelly has had everyone from Aussie ex-pat Russell Crowe to influential alt-country mag No Depression singing his praises. Rolling Stone scribe David Fricke calls him “one of the finest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise”, but the legend from Down Under has yet to crack the lucrative American market.

“I don’t really think of it in those terms,” the laid-back tunesmith relates. “I just like coming over here regularly to play. We try to get over here once a year, so it’s getting better for us. Canada’s been a good place for us to play for a while now too; Vancouver’s always been pretty strong.”

When Kelly and his quartet, the Boon Companions, visit Richard’s on Richards on Sunday (March 21), they’ll be focusing on material from his latest CD, Ways & Means. Recorded in Melbourne last winter with producer Tchad Blake (Travis, Bonnie Raitt), its working title was A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Soul.

“Yeah, that was kind of our view of the record,” Kelly says, “that it was sort of a country-soul record. As we came up with the songs together, we noticed it was getting falsetto choruses and that kind of feeling.”

Ways & Means features Kelly’s 29-year-old nephew Dan Kelly, who played electric guitar, banjo, and fiddle and sang most of the harmonies. The younger Kelly also cowrote 11 of the double disc’s whopping 21 tracks. “The reason we’ve got so many songs is they came from three sources,” Kelly explains. “There’s the ones I write on my own, and the ones I write with Dan, and then we wrote quite a few as a group. We got together in August of 2002 and did a lot of just jamming and fooling around and we came up with quite a few songs–musically, anyway. I write the lyrics.”

The new album kicks off with the exquisite, Shadows-style instrumental “Gunnamatta”, named after a popular surfers’ beach in the Australian state of Victoria, then carries on the melodic vibe with a number of celebratory love songs.

The second side is a more subdued singer-songwriter affair, echoing Kelly’s stark Post period.

“We did definitely try to make the two records quite separate,” he notes, “and people can listen to ’em that way. The first side’s more of a Saturday-night side, and the second one’s more of a Sunday morning.”

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