Death’s Dateless Night

St David’s Cathedral, on the corner of Murray and Macquarie Streets in Hobart, is a building I see almost every day and, consequently, have become immune to its presence.

Originally it was a replacement for the wooden St David’s Church that was erected in St David’s Park over the grave of Lieutenant David Collins, and which blew over in a gale a few months later. Construction of the second St David’s Church commenced on the present site in 1817. When Hobart was granted city status in 1842, St David’s Church became St David’s Cathedral.

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The foundation stone for the current cathedral (the third St David’s Church) was laid in 1868, and the building was designed by the Victorian architect George Frederick Bodley. It was completed in 1874 and the old cathedral was pulled down. The final stage was the construction of the cathedral tower, which was completed on 1936, 68 years after the works started.

But I digress.

Much as I love finding out the history of Hobart’s old buildings, I wasn’t there on Tuesday night to look at the cathedral. I was there, as were a lot of other people, to hear the magical music of Paul Kelly and slide guitarist extraordinaire Charlie Owen come to life as they performed their Death’s Dateless Night show.

As I mentioned in my last post, this tour is a tour of the album, Death’s Dateless Night, a collection of songs that PK and Charlie have sung at funerals over the years. They are accompanied by PK’s daughters Maddy and Memphis Kelly, on backing vocals.

Not having been to a show at the Cathedral before, I was advised to arrive early to avoid getting stuck behind a pillar and not being able to see. We stationed ourselves at a bar across the road before 6pm to suss out the crowd.

  • Rookie Mistake Number 1: Believing that the doors would open at 6.30 as advised on the website.
  • Rookie Mistake Number 2: Not seeing a crowd outside the closed Murray Street door, assuming that this was because it wasn’t 6.30 yet, and assuming no one was waiting. They were waiting. Inside the Cathedral, having gone in the Macquarie Street door long before 6.30.

Ooops.

We found a pew, sort of behind a pillar, but which gave us a relatively unimpeded view of what we hoped would be PK’s mic.

We sat and waited for an hour, admiring the pillars, until the support act, a lovely duo called Sweet Jean, took to the stage. Sweet Jean is Sime Nugent and Alice Keath, who was one of the guest vocalists on PK’s Seven Sonnets and a Song album that came out earlier this year. Slabs has played some of their material on his radio show.

I enjoyed their music and it set the scene really well for the main story.

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Our view. We could just see PK!

The first “act”, as PK called it, was a play through of the Death’s Dateless Night album, minus Track 7. I couldn’t figure out which track had been missed, but it all made sense later on.

The standout for me was “Good Things”, written by PK and Charlie’s former band mate Maurice Frawley. I felt Charlie’s intense guitar during this track really captured a sense of grief for the loss of his friend. (Maurice Frawley died in 2009.)

The ‘folk song from the British Isles’ (“Let It Be”) has never been a favourite Beatles track of mine, and though I appreciate the work that PK, Charlie, Maddy and Memphis put into this, I’m still not a fan. Nevertheless as versions go, this wasn’t bad.

PK mentioned that he had seen Leonard Cohen work up close, and his version of “Bird On A Wire” was very moving, coming so soon after Cohen’s death.”Angel Of Death” was the end of Act One.

The second part of the show was a selection of mostly older material that PK had chosen because it fitted the theme. First up was two of the Sonnets from Seven Sonnets and a Song – “Sonnet 60” and “Sonnet 73”. Before Sonnet 73, PK pointed out all of the guitars and instruments Charlie had played on the new album, including his Bakelite guitar, which he used in this track.

Later: “Everyone’s so quiet in here,” said PK.

“It’s a church,” whispered someone in the audience.

“I know!” PK replied.

Next up was a Tex, Don and Charlie song, which I wasn’t familiar with, called “Postcard From Elvis”. It appears on their 1993 album Sad But True. This was followed by “Pretty Place”, originally on PK’s 2001 album … Nothing But a Dream. He spoke of how the title was inspired by Banjo Clarke, and the Pretty Place was where he used to go to get away from everything. (I googled Banjo Clarke. He was born in 1923 at the Frelmingham Mission in Victoria, on his family’s ancestral land and his mother was originally from Bruny Island.)

A concert of songs with the theme of death was never going to be complete without the one PK song that never fails to make me cry, “Deeper Water”, and this time was no exception. I was in tears from the very first riff. A song of love and of loss. Dammit I don’t even like the song, but I’m drawn to it like the people in the song are drawn to the deeper water.

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Spring and Fall from 2012 is one of PK’s albums I’m not super-familiar with, so I didn’t recognise the track “Time and Tide”, but he told the story of its origin, around a campfire in the Kimberleys. The one new song he played was the poem “Life Is Fine” by American poet Langston Hughes.

So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love-

But for livin’ I was born

The next track needed no introduction – well actually it did, because it’s not a track that immediately comes to mind as a funeral song. PK explained he’d been asked to play his Christmas song “How To Make Gravy” at the funeral of Melbourne AFL player Rob Flower. It’s one of his best-loved songs. This rendition, with Charlie’s guitar, gave me a new appreciation of this song, especially towards the end, where the guitar amplifies the protagonist’s fear that his brother is going to steal his wife while he’s in prison, how gutted his is that he can’t be with his family at Christmas, and he’s so very sorry for what he’s done and for hurting his family. I could hear the anguish in every note. This song made me cry too.

It wasn’t quite the end though, and we were treated to a solo performance of “Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air”. The missing track from the album. And then, an encore, “I Wasted Time”, with the appropriate words:

I see old friends at funerals now and then

It’s down to this – it’s either me or them

Charlie returned to the stage for another moving track, “They Thought I Was Asleep” (from Foggy Highway), and Maddy and Memphis reappeared for the last song of the evening, a real oldie, “Cities of Texas”.

And then they were gone.

It was a serene, contemplative evening. Unlike many other PK shows, there were no loud talkers and no drunken calls to “play To Her Door” – although I didn’t expect there would be. There was an air of solemnity about the show, and complete respect for the artists and their music.

I am grateful to have shared in this experience. Thank you PK, Charlie, Maddy and Memphis. And thanks Slabs for buying me tickets for my birthday!

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2 thoughts on “Death’s Dateless Night

  1. Thanks for this interesting review Sleepy dwarf. I was at the Flinders Street Baptist church show in Adelaide. Luckily, we got very good seats.It certainly was a memorable show. Standout for me was Who’s going to make the Gravy. Not everyone can attend Christmas dinner in our family due to financial impropriety. It’s a bit like a death in the family, but we’ve just had a birth in the family. Bittersweet. Life and death. It’s interesting seeing PK perform in a church. The punters were quiet here too. I usually catch PK’s Adelaide shows, sometimes going both nights. Am I a fan? You be the judge.

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