Live Review: Paul Kelly, Steve Earle, Middle Kids

20 November 2017 | 12:08 pm | Ellen Hewitt

"'Dan learnt his song when he was 13,' says Paul as he strums the 'From St Kilda To Kings Cross' intro."

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It's a beautiful day to wave goodbye to spring and welcome in summer here at Royal Botanical Gardens for A Weekend In The Gardens. Whether you're one of the happy campers on the lawn or seated with a glass of wine from the Eatery around the corner, it's a fantastic environment from which to take in some of the world's best folk music.

First up on stage are Sydney indie rockers Middle Kids, led by the velvet-voiced Hannah Joy who launches into their first song with voracity. Between songs, Joy casually adds that the band "only released their first EP this year", and that it's a pretty big deal to have scored this gig, and she's absolutely right! They start out slow and steady, moving into more heavy, thrashing guitar work and enthusiastic dance moves later on in the set. The crowd is now up and excited for the rest of the night.

Steve Earle keeps up the great folk tradition of one man and his guitar, telling honest stories and strumming honest chords. As twilight sets in, he captivates the audience with his American twang, spouting tales of bushfires and broken homes. The true standout comes in the form of his song The Devil's Right Hand. "People keep telling me this is a gun control song," Earle says. "I guess it is now." He then shares the story of how his 14-year-old son stole a loaded gun from under his pillow. "I never had a gun in the house again," Earle points out before heavily striking his beautifully toned guitar and singing: "I saw my first pistol in the general store/In the general store, when I was 13/Thought it was the finest thing I ever had seen."

Paul Kelly opens with the title track from his new record, Life Is Fine. He plays it sans company under a glowing purple light, the audience silently bewitched as the song builds to its conclusion ("Life is fine/Fine as wine/Life is fiiiiiine") and then the rest of the band joins him on stage to thunderous applause and a lively rendition of Rising Moon. Kelly plays the new album with some crowd-pleasing hits such as Careless, Before Too Long and Dumb Things chucked in there to soothe the needs of the diehard fans. Vika Bull, one of Kelly's back-up singers, takes the lead on two songs, My Man's Got A Cold and Sweet Guy, and absolutely brings down the house with her massive, exquisitely controlled voice.

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Kelly doesn't speak as much as you might expect, but when he does he enlightens us on the definition of one of his song titles, Petrichor: "A pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather." He also tells the story of how he accidentally ended up with a co-writing credit with the great Roy Orbison. The Kelly gang round out their set with an impressive gospel-inspired number, welcoming Joy and Earle back to the stage to each sing a verse.

As they finish, the crowd roars for an encore and they, of course, oblige. Kelly and his nephew/guitarist Dan Kelly walk back out on stage. "Dan learnt his song when he was 13," says Paul as he strums the From St Kilda To Kings Cross intro. And what seems like all 5,000 members of the audience sing along.