The South by Southwest music festival is in full swing, with a horde of hipsters and music-biz people clogging the streets of downtown Austin, Texas. There’s a band playing around every corner, a tattoo on every forearm, hair in every hue.
The big-name performers on the opening night of this year’s festival—Van Morrison, Daryl Hall, R.E.M.—lent the event a somewhat geezerish vibe. All of them have new albums, and all are here to revive careers in various stages of dormancy and/or mediocrity. Their reputations attracted hordes of concertgoers regardless of the merits of their new work.
I was lucky to catch a set by another older performer, singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, who’s never been famous except in his home country of Australia. Kelly’s gig at a theaterlike venue called Esther’s Follies didn’t attract a line around the block like his contemporaries, but he too has a new album, and he proved that he’s still got the songwriting and performing chops to hold an audience in thrall.
Playing an acoustic guitar and accompanied by a talented young bloke on electric, Kelly revisited great songs from past albums, including “Dumb Things” and “Careless,” then rolled out some numbers from his forthcoming disc. “Stolen Apples,” the title track, is a clever retelling of the Adam and Eve tale. “Keep on Driving” rolled along with a rootsy feel, and while “God Told Me To” didn’t mention George W. Bush by name, its inspiration was clear as Kelly spit out the acidic lyrics. Before playing it, Kelly simply intoned, “God told me to, so I must be right.”
Then Kelly tackled a new song that cut right to the heart of the age issue. “You’re 39, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine” played off of Ringo Starr’s “You’re 16, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine” in its lyrics, but Kelly’s heartfelt song conveyed a deep and abiding love that’s nowhere to be found in Ringo’s pedophilic pop ditty. To be sure, a 39-year-old girlfriend would still be a spring chicken compared to Kelly, who’s 53, but the song conveyed a sentiment quite foreign to the youth-worshipping crowd at South by Southwest: Getting older doesn’t have to be a drag, and it can even be sexy.