Colin Hay, Union Chapel, Islington, London 4th April 2017

When a panel voted recently on the best Australian songs of the modern era, three of the top ten were penned by Scots. The Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind” topped the list, co-written by George Young whose brothers Angus and Malcolm were behind the number nine, AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to Rock”. Neither of these are overtly Aussie, which cannot be said of the song that came fourth, written by the man working the audience in
Upper St. tonight. Colin Hay, the solo troubadour behind the mike and behind the song in question (more of that later) was Men at Work’s founder and frontman who moved from Saltcoats in Scotland to Australia in his teens. However he has lived in California since the demise of the band, almost 35 years ago, making him more than qualified to deliver a new album “Fierce Mercy” where the influences of his adopted homeland come to the fore. He chats about inspiration – he cites Gene Pitney, the Walker Brothers and Roy Orbison but in addition to those, echoes of The Beach Boys, Jackson Browne and Bob Seger are all evident in this latest piece.

His style is confessional, and he admitted to a bit of self-doubt prior to stepping on stage “What the F— am I doing here?” he mused, “at 63 I should be growing vegetables somewhere on the south coast of Victoria.” But rather than make things easy for himself, the man whose spiralling vocals were the main draw tonight, elected to teach the audience to sing the chorus of a new song before laying down a note himself. “Come Tumblin’ Down” has a jangly Dylany feel and is the opening track of theNashville / LA recorded album. The sell-out crowd did a fair job on filling the spaces that, on the album track, are packed with pedal steel, banjo and Cajun accordion.

There were common themes in Hay’s between-song commentary and the set-list that he chose tonight: the life and loss of his parents (he was close to both of them); alcohol and drug use (he does neither now) and the afterlife (the gig was in a functioning church so this was omni-present). A trio of songs, “Scattered in the Sand”, the beautiful instrumental “Goodnight Romeo“and “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get over you” work these themes. The smooth jazzy overtones of that song were used in the platinum selling Garden State soundtrack – and this brings the man from LA into full celebrity name check mode – a Jack Nicholson story is always popular with an audience. The meeting with Jack had inspired his early solo song “Looking for Jack” at the end of which he gave a nod to its veteran English producer, Robin Millar, who was in the crowd.

Without having to, he reminds us of how big Men at Work really were in ‘82 and ‘83 with number ones all round the world and stadium gigs. Before launching into reworkings of “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under” he tells us something of the background of the band – effectively a group of friends playing covers who interspersed some self penned songs into their set in the Cricketers Arms Hotel , Melbourne. “Down Under”, intended as a friendly jab at Australians and their worldview ending up as a kind of anthem for the chundering classes.

It’s fair to say that Hay is far more of a raconteur than his contemporaries, many of whom, at this stage in their career, would rather do a short set then disappear. He spoke poignantly about the dissolution of Men at Work and tenderly of the loss of his friend and bandmate Greg Ham. He mischievously hinted that his own lack of commercial success post-band had been down to stage name choice, and had he emulated Sting, or Bono he may have still been up there with the current crop of single-name acts like “Drake” or “Passenger” – trading perhaps under the single name “Colin”

Highlights of the set included the aforementioned “I Just Don’t Think…” and, from the new album, “Thousand Million Reasons” and “Secret Love”. The latter, he joked was written in an attempt to create a gay anthem – Jocelyn Brown it ain’t, but it’s a good footstomping romp in the vein of classic Righteous Brothers . But, more than any particular song, it was in those moments, such as in his wonderful ( and You-Tube friendly ) reworking of Men at Work’s Overkill, where he uses his most powerful tool, the high register of his voice , stepping back and letting it ring clear and perfectly pitched working the resonance of the venue. These acoustic versions, not only of Men at Work material , but of brand new cuts too are the strength of this set and it is a brave man who chooses to launch his new album which is brim full of Compass Studios’ Nashville players, and a nine piece string section to boot , in such an intimate solo showcase. It works perfectly here.

“Overkill” is in effect the climax of the set, but he dispenses with tradition, rather than going off stage right, he plays the encore. “Waiting for my Real Life to Begin” then finally the haunting Dustbowl Era ballad “Next Year People “from his 2015 album. During the set 75-minute set he used two guitars, I have no idea what make they were, but I can say that he told us that, in the interests of frugality, he had dispensed with a guitar tech. years ago. He wore dark blue Chinos and a light pink shirt with a blue sports jacket, his beard was neatly trimmed and he appeared to have more hair than he did in 1982. Most important, he is able to simultaneously tune his guitars and tell funny stories with a glint in his eye.

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