A few songs lacked impact, but on the whole, Rosalind Appleby enjoyed ‘Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds’.
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Review: Paul Kelly, James Ledger, Alice Keath, the Seraphim Trio, ‘Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds’ ·
Perth Concert Hall, 15 February 2020 ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·
There was a whoop from the crowd as rock musician Paul Kelly walked on stage at the Perth Concert Hall on Saturday night. It is obvious the 65-year old’s fan base (and career) is far from ebbing.
Kelly’s pursuit of musical creativity has recently included excursions into Shakespeare (“Seven Sonnets and a Song”) and classical music collaborations (“Conversations with Ghosts”), culminating in last year’s “Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds”, which won Best Classical Album in the 2019 ARIA Awards.
The work is a suite of short compositions by rock and classical musicians interpreting bird-inspired poems. The unique combination of electronics, acoustic instruments and the human voice has toured nationally and attracted a capacity crowd to the Perth Concert Hall.
Kelly was joined on stage by co-composer and Perth musician James Ledger on guitar, singer and multi-instrumentalist Alison Keath, and the Seraphim Trio (Anna Goldsworthy piano, Helen Ayres violin and Tim Nankervis cello). It’s a lovely combination: Ledger’s more acerbic compositional voice and Kelly’s balladeering style combined to make conversational, atmospheric, but never overwritten music. The strings and piano added an expressiveness to Kelly’s plaintive voice; Keath’s banjo, autoharp and percussion instruments expanded the sonic possibilities; and Ledger revealed a new talent with contributions on guitar.
The symphonic soundscape brought brutal power to the rape in W.B. Yeats’ poem, “Leda and the Swan” (Keath pounding that bass drum). Ledger’s slide guitar and Keath’s banjo added a Morricone Wild West eeriness to “Barn Owl” (a setting of Gwen Harwood’s poem), the tragic climax articulated poignantly by Ayres’ violin solo. Kelly’s poetic introduction to each setting, with quotes from sources as diverse as Chekhov, the Anglican liturgy and his own songs, included a plea to protect the bird species that are threatened worldwide.
The tribute to birds metaphysical, metaphorical and mythological continued with “Thornbills” (Judith Wright), given a happy-go-lucky spin (think “From Little Things Big Things Grow”), and the languid “Ode to a Nightingale” (John Keats), in which the trio’s deep, soft sounds were decorated by Keath’s sweet voice and Ledger’s psychedelic wah-wah guitar affects.
Other songs had less impact. The words were often unintelligible (subtitles would’ve helped), the musical trajectory limited, and the performances a little on the reserved side.
The highlight was Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover”, a glorious anthem with guitars, strings and Kelly’s high-crooned melody paying tribute to the “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding”. The words were lost in the wash of music but Keath’s wild keening, and the high whirling piano were themselves poetry. It was a fleeting moment of transcendence, where the collaboration became greater than the sum of its parts.
“Thirteen Ways” was the first show I’ve attended this festival without any Aboriginal content, and I missed it. This is perhaps less a comment on “Thirteen Ways” and more a reflection on the richness of the first week of Aboriginal content and collaboration. However, it needs to be said that a song cycle about birds would be far richer with an Indigenous poem or performer involved.
Pictured top: Co-composers Paul Kelly and James Ledger perform ‘Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds’. Photo: Shane Reid.