Paul Kelly brought along Emma Donovan & The Pushbacks, Sycco, and Ball Park Music for a wonderful night of live music at Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

Emma Donovan & The Putbacks warm up the crowd initially with the type of performance that a veteran touring act can unveil with ease. The acclaimed Indigenous vocalist and her backing rhythm section are wonderfully entwined, knowing when to power forward and when to allow Donovan’s voice to dominate and soar; it’s a nice touch when Kelly later brings Donovan out for another belting performance, which allows a larger crowd to hear her talent.

There’s an endearing interplay between crowd and singer when the youthful Sycco then takes to the stage. “Hi,” she exclaims after her first song; “Hi,” the much older denizens in the audience reply brightly, clearly enamoured by the confident rising star in front of them.

And Sycco’s charisma is undeniable: as she and her band effortlessly run through their triple j-ready tracks (they were nominated for Triple j Unearthed Artist of the Year in 2020 incidentally), you get the sense that Sycco believe they belong on a stage such as this. Their bedroom pop sweetness is also nicely balanced by a strong understanding of contemporary R&B, whenever they threaten to get too saccharine.

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Paul Kelly is of course the star of the night but as I wandered the grassy lawns of Sidney Myer beforehand, a lot of Ball Park Music t-shirts are noticeable; when their turn to perform comes up, there’s an onrush of highly exuberant fans to the front rows. Throughout Brisbane indie rockers lengthy set, they dance and sway excitedly, and the reason is obvious – Ball Park Music are a stunning proposition live. After the giddy promise of Sycco, they are consummate professionals, every song pristine and polished, every guitar line balanced and sharp.

Sam Cromack – who sounds a lot like The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy at points – is a musician’s musician. At the beginning, he plays in his own little world, so involved in his own music that the huge crowd before him dissolves into nothing. To his right, guitarist Dean Hanson is the polar opposite, deliriously swinging and shaking as if his guitar is controlling him.

The rest of the five-piece are commanding and controlled as the band always strike the right balance between energy and melancholy. “It feels like we’ve forgotten how to perform a little bit,” Cromack says self-effacingly, but you wouldn’t know it from being at Sidney Myer.

One often hears frustrating stories of fans going to see old legends like Bob Dylan and being disappointed by how much the ageing process has impacted their performing ability. From the moment Paul Kelly steps onstage, this is not an issue. At 66, he remains an absolute live wire, thrusting and thriving as if he’s a rising 20-something musician again.

Kelly is a generous performer. The limelight is never his to grab, with each member of his wonderful band being given their opportunity to star. Vika and Linda Bull in particular are favourites, their thundering vocals and shimmering confidence eliciting joy from the crowd.

There are sporadic Christmas parts in his set. Vika and Linda Bull belt out a soulful rendition of a festive number from his new album, Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train; there is a solemn performance of ‘Silent Night’; ‘How to Make Gravy’ is a standout, every word being emotively sung back to Kelly by the crowd.

Indeed the crowd seems to somehow anticipate the songs even before the first note is struck. The connection between Kelly and his fans was palpable, every reach for his guitar provoking wild cheers. As a Scotsman, I enjoyed the outsider’s perspective: we know Paul Kelly, we know about his connection with Australia, but to witness it live was a very illuminating experience.

There is, I suspect, a sense of relief in the Sidney Myer crowd. After so long without nights like this, after such a tough two years, Paul Kelly and his band offered an indelible reminder of the intense beauty of live music. He can’t have played many more poignant versions of ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’ before.

A final note: Australian music is in healthy shape judging by this concert. The defining mixture of young and old – there are four decades between Sycco’s Sarah McLeod and Kelly – offer proof that, as the country moves into an uncertain future post-pandemic, the industry might be struggling but the talent is there. Sycco will be commercial mainstays in the next few years while Ball Park Music’s latest song ‘Suncreen’ is as strong as anything else they play. And Paul Kelly, you feel, has plenty more nights like this in him yet.

Tickets for the 2nd Melbourne show of the ‘Making Gravy’ tour tonight, December 10th, and the Brisbane show on Saturday, December 18th are still available via frontiertouring.com/makinggravy.

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