Live Review: Neil Finn and Paul Kelly // Palais Theatre // March 6

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“I had to learn narratives. You can’t get the verses wrong because then the story doesn’t make sense. Paul had to learn a few chords…”

Neil Finn, sitting at a piano side-on to the audience, is telling the crowd how he and his cohort for the evening, Paul Kelly, went about rehearsing for their tour. The audience responds with hearty laughter before Kelly steps up to the microphone, guitar-clad. “This is one of the chords I learnt. It’s quite good. I hope to use it in a song one day…”

The crowd laughs again, but are immediately interrupted by Kelly, who launches into the instantly recognisable Crowded House masterpiece “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. You can almost feel the audience take a collective breath, enthralled as it watches Kelly stumble around on stage, pensively strumming those unmistakable chords, and Finn, singing one of his biggest hits with a passion that defied the fact he’s played it hundreds of times before.

It is just one of many highlights from a very special evening at the Palais Theatre. It’s the final show of a seven-night run at St Kilda’s illustrious indoor seated venue, one Finn mentions has been a joy to play at over the past few weeks.

Seeing two of Australia’s (yes, New Zealand, we long ago claimed Neil) most iconic musicians sharing a stage – alongside Kelly’s nephew Dan on guitar, Finn’s son Elroy on drums (whom he fatherly berates at one point during the show) and bassist Zoe Hauptmann – is a sight to behold. The Herald Sun’s Cameron Adams compared it to watching Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan share a stage, but as the 150-minute show unfolds one can’t help but think a McCartney/Dylan show would pale in comparison.

Certainly the stage banter wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining. Anyone who has seen Crowded House, or Split Enz, or the Finn Brothers – or hell any show where Neil Finn shares a stage with anyone – knows that Finn is a very funny, affable man. He and Kelly play off each other all night, at one point rattling off funny song titles until they run out of ideas.

But of course it’s the music where they really shine. The show begins with the stage bathed in darkness, aside from a dimly-lit backdrop. There are chirping crickets over the speakers, giving the opening track, Kelly’s “Don’t Stand So Close to the Window”, a bonfire feel as he and Finn walk out holding only lanterns and acoustic guitars.

Throughout the night the pair trade instruments, verses, even whole songs. Kelly does a spellbinding cover of Crowded House’s majestic “Into Temptation” which is followed by Finn doing a gorgeous solo piano take on Kelly’s “You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed”.

Elsewhere there is Finn singing with Kelly on “Deeper Water”, “Leaps and Bounds” and “Dumb Things”, and Kelly with Finn on “Four Seasons in One Day”, “Not the Girl You Think You Are” and “Private Universe”. These songs are well known, having been sung for many years by those in the audience. But here they’re given new life, and it’s impossible to wipe the smile off your face as they take up parts of each other’s songs. The mutual respect is plain for all to see, and the seeming effortlessness with which Finn and Kelly perform – even the occasional flubbed line becomes part of the charm – feels like a privilege to watch.

That mutual respect also allows both to take centre stage with zero ego on their biggest songs. Kelly comments on the rapturous response Crowdies crowd favourite “Better Be Home Soon” receives after Finn leads the audience through a harmonious sing-along of its heartwarming refrain. But Finn knows it will be the same as he takes the backseat on the next song, Kelly’s deeply moving “How to Make Gravy”. It’s arguably the highlight of the night and results in many damp eyes across the room.

Other treasures throughout the show include a rollicking version of “She Will Have Her Way”, a touching rendition of “Fall At Your Feet” (that proves the so-loved Boy & Bear cover to be hugely inferior), the classic “To Her Door” and an upbeat “Careless”.

After two encores and two-and-a-half hours Finn and Kelly close the show with an acoustic duet cover of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love”. It’s a fitting (and fair – how could they have decided whose song would go last?) ending to a brilliant show put on by two of Australian music’s very best.

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