December 01, 1999

Double Bill

Filed under: Archive,Music

Paul Kelly and Uncle Bill
Governor Hindmarsh
Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Paul Kelly is back. And not with something completely different, but not the same old, same old either. Let’s call it a logical extension.  With the announcement of Gawd Aggie, his new imprint since moving to EMI, Kelly has been diversifying. In one direction is the funk project, Professor Ratbaggy with his regular band, The Casuals. In another is Smoke, his collaboration with Melbourne string band wiz Gerry Hale and his four piece finger-picking outfit, Uncle Bill.

Kelly has teamed up with Uncle Bill previously -on Graham Lee’s compilation of usual suspects onWhere Joy Kills Sorrow.  Then, one thing led to another and from the sparks came Smoke,  a likeable mix of new songs and Kelly favourites restrung for bluegrass. Now Paul Kelly is number two on the country charts and he has even made a video clip of Stories of Me – looking for all the world like an out-take from The Night of the Hunter.

It is not surprising that the band might call themselves Uncle Bill, in homage to Bill Monroe. He is not just the Uncle, he’s the Father of Bluegrass. He really is. Paternity is easily claimed, especially in music circles, but without Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys there would be no such thing as bluegrass- that beguiling mix of mandolin, fiddle, guitar and banjo which re-energised country music in the late 1940s.

Because of its traditional sound, one that has wafted from the hills of Kentucky, the Carolinas and Tennessee since the early 18th century,  it is hard to believe that bluegrass is more recent than Bing Crosby. But the defining formula was invented by Monroe and the equally legendary, and onomatopoeic, Flatts and Scruggs- Lester Flatts with his bass-run guitar lines and Earl Scruggs’ dazzling three finger banjo picking. Between them, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Cedric Rainwater, they created what someone once called country music on overdrive, a hellbent, virtuosic exhilarating sound that became instant Americana.

After an intro from Kelly, rather the way Slim Dusty likes to do, Uncle Bill opens the first show at the Gov with a set of bluegrass standards and creative applications. Jack Jones’ rowdy old The Race is On sets a lively pace, then it is offset by the Monroe weepie I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home – from his extensive

prodigal-return-to-mother repertoire. Lennon and McCartney’s Things We Said Today is a treat, reminding us what splendidly shaped melodies the Fabs used to write. Then the vocals switch from Gerry Hale to mandolin player Adam Gare forSan Antonio Rose and The Small Exception of Me.

Uncle Bill play dinkum bluegrass -tightly managed quartet work between Hale on a variety of guitars, Gare on mandolin, Stuart Speed on upright bass and Peter Somerville, like clockwork on the banjo. They also play genuinely acoustically, weaving around an old style broadcast microphone for solos and vocal harmonies. There is no foldback and no pick-ups, just subtly calibrated live performance steered artfully towards the sound desk. The trouble is that, in the spacious room at the Governor Hindmarsh, the sound is marred by the continual din from the bar. Uncle Bill don’t play pub rock and the Kelly fans who didn’t check their tickets and only came to hear Dumb Things and Forty Miles to Saturday Night are starting to seriously piss off everybody else.

Kelly comes on after the break. Greetings, he drawls, from the Republic of Victoria. The attention improves but unbelievably, the nattering continues. A bloke near me is almost apoplectic and gives out a spray of disapproval. The crowd is starting to split, unhelpfully, into one those stand-up, sit-down, be quiet, kind of congregations. Kelly opens with an unfamiliar choice, Ghost Town. Then, from the Smoke album comesI Can’t Believe We Married and a wonderfully nimble, banjo-driven Taught By Experts . Stories of Me, also comes to life with its turkey chase rhythms and keening harmonies as the band gather round the microphone like a brazier in winter.

Slim Dusty’s Sunlander, Kelly’s contribution to a recent tribute album is followed by the whimsical but rather forgetable Little Boy Don’t Lose Your Balls. Gathering Storm gets a new prognostic charting and, opening a solo bracket,  Kelly’s song for Vika and Linda, If I Could Start Today Again, is a tender highlight.  The reflective Everything’s Turning to White works well as does the sardonically weary Ev’ry Fucking City. The Uncles return for the Kelly tribute to Ned, My Sunshine .  And a new track from the album, Whistling Bird,  is my favourite of the night. Buoyed by a cradle rocking mandolin and guitar refrain and garnished by dobro slide it is a re-setting of Corinna, Corinna– and testimony to Kelly’s considerable confidence as a writer, incorporating traditional idiom and making it new.

After nineteen numbers Kelly and the Bill stagger off stage to give their vocal chords and picking fingers some treatment  for RSI. Then for afters there is Gravy, with a side serve of dobro and a rambunctious To Her Door. Uncle Bill takes a turn with some Ernest Tubb thumping and a triple fiddle show-off from the Monroe Olympics.

The crowd has moved in close now, hungry for favourites like When I First Met Your Ma, and rewarded with new songs like the sweetly melancholic Night After Night – Kelly’s plaintive vocal nicely counterpoised by the sprightly, get-on-with-it tempo of mandolin, banjo and fiddle. Kelly closes with Glory Be to God, which, translated to the trickling optimism of bluegrass, loses some of the carnal urgency of the Words and Music version. Just as well, probably. Mr Monroe would disapprove of that sort of jook joint talk.  And he surely must have been watching.  Because, I’m told, for the Saturday night show the punters were as quiet as little field mice.

The Adelaide Review, No.195, December, 1999, p.36.

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