We’ve covered Colin Hay several times over the last few years, going out of our way to laud the efforts he’s taken to remodel himself from former Men at Work front man to solo acoustic troubadour.
But after witnessing Hay in concert again last night at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Cleveland we realized we only half right. Because Hay’s always been a string-strumming bard at heart—a spiritual pilgrim with fascinating stories to tell and the musical skills needed to deliver them. If he ever underwent a makeover, it was to indulge a bit o’ plugged-in ‘80s pop rock with Ron Strykert, Greg Ham and the boys.
Musically informed by his adopted Australian home, Hay was the principal songwriter behind the smash Men at Work albums Business as Usual (1981) and Cargo (1983). That first album yielded a #1 hit; the follow-up spawned a pair of Top Ten singles.
But the bloom was off the rose by ’85—by which time Men at Work had already lost its rhythm section of Jerry Speiser (drums) and John Rees (bass). Strykert absconded next, leaving Hay and Ham to clean up the mess after 1986’s overlooked Two Hearts.
So Colin struck out alone, issuing a string of impressive solo albums in the ‘90s (Looking for Jack, Wayfaring Sons, Peaks & Valleys, Topanga). He also relocated to California, where he stripped back his songwriting to the bare necessities of voice and guitar on Transcendental Highway (1998), Going Somewhere (2000) and Company of Strangers (2002). Sometimes he’d poach players from wife Cecilia Noel’s Latino band, the Wild Clams, if he was feeling musically mischievous.
But it’s no exaggeration to say Colin’s been rebuilding his audience over the last two decades, having returned to the clubs ‘n’ pubs circuit to find his feet again after a rough patch of hard living. He’s delighted audiences numbering from 20 to 20,000 with his infectious tunes and wicked wit, and continues to spend a majority of each calendar year on the road in support of such acclaimed discs as American Sunshine (2009) and Gathering Mercury (2011). You may have spotted his cameos on Scrubs or heard him sing on TV’s Modern Family (or in art house films like Garden State).
Fresh off a summer tour with Barenaked Ladies and Violent Femmes, Hay is now hitting the East Coast behind his latest Compass Records release, Next Year People. The Thursday night gig at Trinity was both Colin’s first on the current tour and the church’s first of the season; the Euclid Avenue landmark began hosting concerts last year with Cleveland-based promoters The Elevation Group, who helped lasso Howard Jones, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Bruce Hornsby, and March Cohn for its initial run of “Cathedral Concerts.”
We wondered if the sacred surrounds would pressure Hay into sanitizing his between-song banter: The guy’s funny as hell, but he tends toward the colorful language more often heard on Alaskan trawlers than within historic houses of worship.
We needn’t have worried. Colin cleaned it up a bit, taking a careful glance over his shoulder for lightning bolts whenever he did drop an S-word or F-bomb. It helped that a curtain backdrop (used for video projections of waterfalls and prairies) concealed the divinely altar from view, and at times it was easy to forget our environs.
“I’m glad you’re here and it’s not just me and the Lord,” greeted Colin early on. “Because I have some explaining to do!”
Hay made his confession anyway—both within the confines of his stirring, introspective songs, and with a batch of gut-busting recollections and anecdotes. Over the course of the 100-minute performance, he dished on waning superstardom, alcoholism and recovery, his departed mum and dad, his friendship with Ham (“I miss him dreadfully”), and his career upswing.
“I like making new records,” he said. “I’m optimistic like that.”
The set featuring offerings from several “new” records—but Hay also dusted off a few old gems (the elegant “Beautiful World” and oceangoing “Wayfaring Sons”) and Men at Work staples, too (“Who Can It Be Now?”). Using only his rich baritone and his deft fingerpicking (on two or three Australian-made Maton guitars), Colin effectively performed mass hypnosis on the 500-strong crowd.
He wielding a sparkly-sounding 12-string mandolin on tearjerker “Dear Father,” wistful childhood valentine “Maggie,” and mortality meditation “A Simple Song.” He said kids seem to take to the new “Mr. Grogan” (about an elderly shop keep)—perhaps because it features a labradoodle in its lyric (and the protagonist’s apartment).
Hay’s only vocal flub came during that track: He lost himself between verses, laughed beside himself, and saved face without a break in strumming. Oddly enough, the line he couldn’t recall was “makes a mental note.”
An unplugged (but still reggae-fused) “Down Under” followed, with the song’s original MTV video clip flickering on the scrim. “Scattered in the Sand” was in homage to Hay’s mother, who offered unconditional love—even when she saw him choke a guy in a TV movie.
“He probably deserved it,” said Isabella Hay of her son’s victim.
“If I Had Been a Better Man” spoke of regret and loss, while “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” addressed heartache…and healing.
“That song is from an album that didn’t go platinum,” Hay reflected. “I think it only went mahogany status.”
Other mid-song chat covered zombies, human evolution, prostate health and hybrid cars, and obscure ‘60s bands (like Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich). “Did You Just Take the Long Way Home” gave folks a taste of Colin’s new record, while “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” brought diehards back to 2001. And just when you thought the pre-Halloween high jinks were over, Hay broke into Cargo chart-buster “Overkill” (with a funny play on the ghosts described in the refrain) and said his goodbyes with “Next Year People” (a fitting anthem for Cleveland sports fans).
If you missed Colin’s Cathedral show, you can catch him in the act on the recent DVD Live at the Corner. He’s also got a new biopic—Waiting for My Real Life—making the rounds at Melbourne film fests; hopefully that’ll make its way to disc soon as well.
Local singer / songwriter Diana Chittester opened with a half-dozen tunes from the albums Soul and Find My Way Home. Like Hay, she went solo and semi-unplugged on “Alleluia” and “Take It Back.”
But this was no kumbaya: Like Michael Hedges and Ani DiFranco, Chittester is a master guitarist who employs open and alternate tunings—and provides her own percussion by rapping on the body of her instrument. She’s supported Kim Richey and Jennifer Batten (amongst others), and counts The Winchester, House of Blues, Beachland Ballroom, and Cain Park on her list of been-there, done-that venues.
Chittester is as easy on the eyes as the ears, too: With her striking cover girl good looks, the self-described preacher’s daughter enthralled with “Storyteller” (which she sent out to her older sister) and bluegrass punk entry “Secret.”
But the real showstopper was Chittester’s rendition of Lindsey Buckingham’s (Fleetwood Mac) “Big Love,” which allowed her to stretch both her voice and her fingers. She also bounded across the altar, hefting her Takamine skyward, digits dancing across the strings beneath her capo.
“I’ve got new sparkly high-tops,” she beamed. “I feel like I can do anything!”
On this occasion, it was enough to turn everyone’s heads and prime them for the “Prison Time” auteur—and Diana did just that, her warm-up set something of an unexpected treat for ticket-holders.
She’ll be cranking it up again November 19th at the Crossroads restaurant at House of Blues.