'Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air' @ Riverstage

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Jul 25 2011, 5h41

Sat 23 Jul – Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air

To read this review on thevine.com.au alongside photos by Justin Edwards, click here.

The headline event of the annual Queensland Music Festival (QMF) is a pairing of Pauls: Kelly, cherished songwriter, and Grabowski, acclaimed pianist and composer. I've seen it advertised on three huge billboards across Brisbane. Dubbed Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air after one of Kelly's songs, it translates as a statement of intent on behalf of QMF organisers. Yes, we deserve to be taken seriously! And evidently, when you need serious credibility and adult-contemporary appeal in this country, you turn to Paul Kelly.

This particular show premiered in Kelly's hometown of Adelaide in 2006. It was reprised in 2008 and 2010 in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively; this is the first time it has been actively toured, with six shows taking place across capital cities. On a clear July evening, the set begins at an unusually early 5.50pm, which undoubtedly trips up those who expected the event to conform to the Riverstage's regular 10pm curfew. It's about 12 degrees. Most of the capacity crowd are sat on rows of hard plastic chairs; general admission are left to find comfort up at the back of the hill. Once the band file out, there are 19 on stage including the two Pauls: the six-piece Choir With No Name, singers Vika and Linda Bull, and the Australian Art Orchestra. Immediately, their sound is clear and precise, and it remains this way throughout the following 90 minutes.

Early on, Kelly - clad in a smart grey suit - makes his first of several addresses to the crowd. He tells us that holding this show in 2011 makes sense, as it's the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which he deems the English language's single most important document. Accordingly, most of tonight's songs will revolve around themes raised in that text, although "the devil will drop by from time to time", he says. This gets a chuckle out of the crowd; less so, Kelly's revelation midway through when commenting on the abundance of 'God' in his lyrics, despite his being an atheist. It's an uncomfortable moment, as it appears that the largely middle-aged - and, judging from the crickets, largely Christian - audience are silently deciding whether or not to be offended.

Ultimately, tonight feels more Grabowski's show than Kelly's. Though he assumes the conductor's role only a handful of times, two things are made very clear: that he is in control of the musicians on stage, and that he's a master jazz pianist. Most of the Art Orchestra are allowed their moments in the spotlight: guitar, double bass, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, violin and cello are all allowed distinctive solos, and are dutifully applauded by the crowd. Only a couple of Kelly's album tunes make it into the set, and none of his most recognisable work; instead, we hear 'Be Careful What You Pray For', 'God Told Me To' and the show's title track, during which Grabowski leaves his stool and slowly walks across to the singer while clapping slowly and obviously. They ad lib vocals around the song title for a while, and it's clear that they're looking for the audience to engage with an impromptu clap-a-long a la any rock 'n' roll show in the world. It's not forthcoming; at least not from where I'm sitting. After introducing the entire band by their full names, Grabowski draws our attention to Kelly; to paraphrase, a man who never acknowledges his contribution, either on stage or to Australian culture.

At times Kelly leaves the stage entirely, deferring vocals to the Bull sisters. These are the show's low moments, and though vocally exquisite, they threaten to lose entire sections of the crowd. After a particularly meandering, lengthy song led by Linda Bull, a general admission punter yells, "We want Paul!". She coolly responds that he's "on his way". It's that guy's fault for anticipating a more accessible set of tunes, perhaps, but I'd wager that his complaint is being thought (or whispered into their partners' ear) by a decent chunk of the crowd. There are glimpses of fire and inspiration, and of real humour when the singer indulges in an increasingly frenzied full-body dance toward the end of a song, before walking off without so much as a cheeky backward glance.

When the orchestra click during the midsection of 'God Told Me To' they're brilliant. But these sections are tempered with slower, softer songs led alternately by the Bull sisters. They are fine singers capable of holding the crowd's heads and hearts. But they aren't Paul Kelly. And it's his name on the billboards.

The Vine

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