It was a momentous occasion, for sure, and maybe a long time coming. Neil Finn, the legendary Kiwi singer/songwriter, and Paul Kelly, the legendary Australian singer/songwriter, had crossed paths before, going back to the 1980s. The two played a one-off concert in 2011, and finally announced a joint Australian tour in 2013. Goin’ Your Way, a document of the tour’s final date, at the Sydney Opera House, was released in the duo’s native territories in late 2013 and a year later in the UK. Now comes a belated worldwide release.
Why the wait? Legal wrangling could be a factor. But there is also the strong likelihood that relatively few people outside Australia will have heard of Kelly. Finn, of course, has decades of international success and even borderline superstardom as co-leader and leader of Split Enz and Crowded House, respectively. Kelly, though, remains a cult concern outside his native land. This is in no small part because his intimate story-songs have retained a strong identification with, and reflection of, Australian society. So there is the strong possibility that American Crowded House fans, for example, will view Goin’ Your Way as a collection of their favorites along with a bunch of songs by some other guy. If nothing else, maybe this wider release will draw some deserved attention to Kelly.
Goin’ Your Way really can be looked at from two different perspectives. On one hand, it is a very safe, very close-to-the-vest exercise in nostalgia. A big-time, Live Nation-backed tour is no time to rock the boat, and Goin’ Your Way is about as tasteful and risk-averse as one could expect. The two-disc set contains 29 songs spread over two hours, and all but a few were singles for Finn, Kelly, Split Enz, or Crowded House. The closest thing to surprises are “Only Talking Sense” from the terrific Finn Brothers album, two favorites from Finn’s 1998 solo debut Try Whistling This, and “For the Ages”, an album cut from Kelly’s then-current Spring and Fall. The setlist makes sense in terms of hitting the broadest target. Fans that came only to see Kelly, for example, would more likely be familiar at least with Finn’s hits, and vice-versa. But in Australia, wouldn’t most attendees likely be fans of both? Some of these songs are iconic, for sure, and would be missed if they were not included. Still, it seems like an opportunity to dig deeper was missed.
As for performances themselves, they are likewise buttoned-down, traditional, and faithful to the recorded versions. Finn and Kelly do often share vocals, sometimes taking the lead on the other’s songs. Possibly out of reverence, though, neither takes any liberty with even the phrasing or vocal melodies. Both men play and/or sing on each track, so in that sense the show is truly collaborative rather than a tag-team affair. This element lends the show a cozy, more intimate feel. But few new musical wrinkles are uncovered or created.
The other perspective, basically, is “So what?!?”. Here are two outstanding singer-songwriters, performing some of their best-known, most-loved songs in what may well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Goin’ Your Way is basically two greatest-hits packages in one. And both Finn and Kelly are in fine form and fine voice. Finn’s rich, buttery croon meshes better with Kelly’s songs than Kelly’s reedy, nasal tone meshes with Finn’s, but both sound at home in the other’s compositions. The backing band is strong and something of a family affair, as well: Finn’s son is on drums, while Kelly’s nephew handles guitar. Bassist Zoe Hauptmann provides a firm yet versatile foundation. The mix, by veteran Bob Clearmountain, is full-bodied and short on crowd noise and banter. The result is a concert album that, for better and worse, sounds more like a studio recording. And maybe the conservative nature of the show is warranted, after all. When the combo do get into more of a jam on the coda of “Distant Sun”, they nearly run off the rails. The two covers fall flat as well. Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” sounds accidental, while “Moon River” just doesn’t work as a singalong. But, really, who needs covers when the originals are so strong?
Most people will meet Goin’ Your Way half way between these two interpretations. It takes the rout of two artists who have nothing left to prove, but it is also something more than a tie-in tour memento.