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Paul Kelly charms festival audience

The buzz has been palpable all day at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival.

The man who can stake rightful claim to the title of our nation’s finest laureate was in town – and he’d brought his guitar.

Paul Kelly packed the Macquarie Tent to the rafters this afternoon as a part of the In Conversation series, this time centering on Music and Memoir. The audience was presumably a more subdued one than he was used to – a sea of listeners; clapping with exuberance only when permitted. Still, the dulcet troubadour turned on the charm for the full hour, proving that the only thing that was receding was his hairline.

Kelly was candid and personable during the interview, discussing his family, his friendships with indigenous revolutionaries Archie Roach and  Kev Carmody, as well as walking the audience through the ins and outs of some of his most revered numbers.

“[My single] Adelaide was mostly biographic,” the singer admitted. “My dad died when I was much younger, I rang the bells at his funeral. I got in trouble about [the line about] the crazed aunts, though. The living ones took me to task.”

Refreshingly, the eight-time ARIA award winner can still have a laugh at himself.

“That song [Adelaide] has some pretty dumb rhymes in it, come to think of it,” he laughed.

Kelly was in fact so bashful that when he was introduced by compere David Leser, who gave a summary of the songwriter’s many achievements, his head was down; eyes glued to the carpeted platform on which he was sitting.

He was at the festival to talk not only about his songwriting career, but also about his burgeoning career as a composer of prose. Kelly’s autobiography was released last year, and he treated his audience to an except reading of the book. In the excerpt, Kelly discussed Frank Sinatra as a personal inspiration:

“He’s the wise, wounded soldier of love. He made me want to write about love in all senses. Man/woman, platonic … love of sport … of music …”

It’s surprising, then, that a man with such a repertoire [Kelly boasts over 300 songs to his name] had such a hard time talking about what it was to be a songwriter.

“You really don’t know what you’re doing until you’re in the middle of it … I guess it’s just my natural bent. ”

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.

Kelly’s performances were breathtakingly good, whether it was the folky, fingerpicked They Thought I Was Asleep or the haunting, a Capella rendition of Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air.

The true highlight, as far as I’m concerned, was Kelly’s closing number, which shares a title with his autobiography. It was called How To Make Gravy, but after hearing him speak today, I’m proposing a new title: How to make one hundred middle-aged women weep with emotion.

Max Quinn is a Southern Cross University media student.

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