Review: Paul Kelly's Making Gravy @ The Riverstage (Brisbane)

Paul Kelly's Making Gravy Brisbane concert was staged at The Riverstage (18 December). Paul Kelly's Making Gravy Brisbane concert was staged at The Riverstage (18 December).

With his crew of handpicked and talented musicians, Paul Kelly showcased his distinct storytelling flavour through music and the occasional chat with the audience with a healthy dash of Christmas songs and generous side of support acts: Ball Park Music, Sycco and Emma Donovan And The Putbacks.

The Riverstage in Brisbane was the setting (18 December) for Paul's annual Making Gravy concert, now in its fourth year.

Barefoot, with a graceful and regal presence, is acclaimed and greatly admired Indigenous artist Emma Donovan making her way onstage with rhythm masters and jazz-funk groovers, The Putbacks.

Donovan sets the tone of storytelling for the evening as she gives insights into her family and life experiences – reflective of her Indigenous culture where stories are an integral part of Indigenous education and enjoyment.

This makes us listen harder to the lyrics that accompany the tight and skilful music of The Putbacks. Donovan sings with poignant vocals that are rich, raw, honest and gutsy without being abrasive and with a whole lot of soul.

Their set includes 'Nothing I Can Do', 'Take Some Time', 'Out The Door', and a moving cover of 'Yarian Mitji' ('What's My Story') – a Ruby Hunter song and I believe Donovan was singing in Hunter's language of Ngarrindjeri.

Emma Donovan
Emma Donovan And The Putbacks - credit Clea-marie Thorne

'Pink Skirt' is next. The lyrics and instrument blend to give a strong emotive imagery of its storyline. 'Warrell Creek Song' and 'Don't Give Up On Me' are offered up last.

The Putbacks upcycled mellow '70s sounds of keys with the old-world vintage soul grooves and laid-back funk that solidly support the intensity of feeling of Donovan's voice in a way that the lyrics are felt in your soul.

The collaboration between vocalist and band is nurturing and never competitive. With Donovan's immense set of pipes and a precision band, I can see why they took out three awards at the 2021 Music Victoria Awards.

More photos from the show.

Next was Sycco (Sasha McLeod) who casually took to the stage. Sycco pulls us into her jam with 'Time's Up' with her very sweet and clear voice with a honeyed tone that is easy on the ears. She elevates her voice above the beats that has us bopping along.

Sycco's set may be short but it is packed with catchy and engaging songs that immerse us in a very chill vibe, backed with heavy beats. In the crowd, hips sway and hands snake in the air. We get a taste of some chill-wave and hip hop elements mixing in the indie pop sounds they progress through their song list.

Sycco
Sycco - image © Clea-marie Thorne

I acknowledge the humbleness of this experienced young artist when she says things like "thank you", "thank you for listening to us" after every song – it's like she is expecting everyone to be at the bar and not paying attention. Heck no, this is such a great set – we are not going anywhere.

Young punters mimic Sycco's hip hop, rapper style hand moves. Her bangers 'Dribble' and 'My Ways' (a song about dealing with lockdown brain), with its funky guitar and ear-worm chorus, helps the kids pull off those moves with flair.

Sycco's band hold their own supporting her with mid-speed grooves layered over nippy beats. You should really give 'Nicotine' a listen; she's really got it going on.

Homegrown heroes, Ball Park Music are now energetically taking to the stage to give us a bit of their pop-rock flavour. While I don't get a big buzz from their recordings, I certainly dig their solid live vibe every time and as they explode into the summery and jiving beats of 'Spark Up!' they keep me feeling that way.

Ball Park Music
Ball Park Music - image © Clea-marie Thorne

Ball Park Music have fans up on their feet. 'It's Nice To Be Alive' then hits us with a positive message and mood and 'Everything Is Sh.t Except My Friendship With You' has punters singing along hard and enthusiastically to their favourite tune.

'Day And Age' comes next before their well-received new bright and bouncy song 'Sunscreen'. Keeping the momentum going for the crowd are 'The Perfect Life Does Not Exist', 'Bad Taste Blues', 'Exactly How You Are' and 'Tripping The Light Fantastic' before 'Head Like A Sieve' envelopes us with its summery Aussie rock riffing sounds.

Ball Park Music.2
Ball Park Music - image © Clea-marie Thorne

Frontman Sam Cromack tells us 'Cherub', their final song, was written for his daughter. Fans go nuts with applause for the local five-piece that primed us well for the main act.

We are not kept waiting long for the charismatic frontman and storyteller extraordinaire headlining the evening's action. As Paul Kelly walks on stage, smiles light up the faces in the crowd who welcome him with a hefty applause. Joining Paul are Vika and Linda Bull, Dan Kelly, Bill McDonald, Peter Luscombe, Ash Naylor and Cameron Bruce.

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Paul Kelly - image © Clea-marie Thorne

Kelly is acknowledging country, telling us how he is grateful to the people who have looked after the lands, skies and water here for thousands of years. The stage then ignites with the music of Kelly's musical adaptation of Dylan Thomas' poem, the catchy 'And Death Shall Have No Dominion'.

Kelly and the proficient tour ensemble then shift gears into 'Finally Something Good' with its perky tone and upbeat tempo. The well-known 'Before Too Long' raises the energy of the crowd whose numbers have now swollen on the slopes – let the sing-along commence.

Vika and Linda Bull own the right of stage beside Kelly, not just in real estate terms but owning it with gutsy vocals, stage presence, choreographed dance moves and superb style.

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Vika and Linda Bull - image © Clea-marie Thorne

Bodies are dancing as 'Christmas Train' brings the rock & roll feels with Vika Bull ripping up vocals on stage with great prowess and the tight playing of guitars, keys and drums bring it home.

Kelly gives us the backstory of 'A Bastard Like Me' based on the autobiography by Charles Perkins. Kelly performs this with a brutal honesty. We revisit 'Careless' followed by 'Firewood And Candles' and its fun beat has couples around me hugging and rocking a little more closely. Nawwe.

Then we journey down that tricky road of relationships with 'Love Never Runs On Time' and his country ballad 'Letter In The Rain'.

As Kelly narrates between songs we are drawn deep into the experience. Acknowledgement and inclusivity are a part Kelly's ambience – ensuring we are aware of the history of the songs, that credit is given to the creators and co-creators, and like a true gentleman he is comfortable taking a backseat to his gifted vocalists and musicians who get a turn to lead a song and hold the limelight.

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Paul Kelly & band - image © Clea-marie Thorne

Who knew that 'Silent Night' was the only historical Christmas carol written for a stringed instrument? Not me. Thanks for the that fun fact. Kelly, Sime Nugent and Alice Keath are performing this traditional number with one verse sung in German. Alice Keath is playing on something that looks like a stringed washboard – is it a Zither?

'They Thought I Was Asleep' is ahead of Kelly and his nephew Dan doing their stripped-back version of 'St Kilda To Kings Cross' and we, the fans, are chiming in with robust vocal abandon.

Taking a backseat, Kelly hands the vocal reigns to Donovan, with Vika and Linda remaining for backup vocals. It's a Christmas album song, 'The Virgin Mary Had One Son'. This slow and emotive traditional style carol is giving me goosebumps – so angelic yet powerful are their voices.

Kelly makes mention of the near full moon that is shining high in the clear sky above us. It is perched like a pre-arranged prop for 'Rising Moon' that paves the way for 'Josephina', and Aussie anthem 'To Her Door' with its nostalgia and infectious melody has punter voices soaring with song. Kelly, looks for more participation and is coaching the crowd: "Like he's just been what?" We respond with great gusto: "HIT!"

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Paul Kelly - image © Clea-marie Thorne

'God Told Me To', 'Christmas', 'Sweet Guy' and 'Deeper Water' come before the dateless bangers, 'Dumb Things' and his '96 classic 'How to Make Gravy' – the tour title and Gravy Day namesake. Unleashing the lyrics into the night sky, these hits turn punters into choralists. Not even lying.

The final song is 'Christmas' (Baby, Please Come Home – Darleen Love cover) led and delivered by Linda Bull with great power and control and unwavering projection. After a bow and a wave, the creatives exit the stage.

It's not long before our "one more song" chanting wins us an encore that starts with Archie Roach's 'Down City Streets' with Donovan onstage showing us how she can hold a notes with such tone and control.

Alice Keath has her banjo to join in on 'Our Sunshine' trailed by 'Leaps And Bounds' that sets the stage afire. I am amazed at the boundless energy of the band who have been pumping the grooves all night.

Russell Smith and his didgeridoo now joins the ensemble for the finale 'From Little Things Big Things Grow'. In sync with the lyrics of the song the number of bodies on stage increases until most of the performers of the day are sharing the stage. Another round of bows and it's over.

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Paul Kelly & band - image © Clea-marie Thorne

Kelly and his collective gave everything up to the very end of the show. If anyone asks does Kelly still have an exceptional knack for storytelling, can playing guitar and harmonica with skill, belt out or croon with thick with emotion aligned to the narrative of his lyrics – my answer is "damn straight he does!"

Reflecting Kelly's passion for diversity and inclusion, the cracking musicians for this tour played a killer precision set with passion and enthusiasm; add to that the variety of music flavours of the support bands Kelly got this year's gravy just right – I trust it will be just as tasty next year.

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