There are two things to know about Colin Hay.
First, his voice sounds just as it did all those years ago on those Men at Work albums you listened to to death in the early 1980s.
Second, the guy is a natural storyteller, and if that’s not apparent in the song lyrics he’s crafted over the decades, it’s clear from the anecdotes he sprinkles throughout his live performances.
Like the story he told at Northern Quest on Saturday night about playing a Men at Work reunion show with his former bandmate Greg Ham in Atlantic City. As he was riding in the elevator with a man, the guy asked who he played with. “Men at Work,” Hay replied. No, the man insisted, they’re broken up. Hay replies, well we’re back together for a few shows. Hay deadpanned the man’s response: Nah, the lead singer is dead.
The lead singer, of course, was far from dead. After Men at Work fell apart, Hay soldiered on, releasing 13 solo albums.
“I keep making records because I’m very optimistic,” Hay said with his Aussie-by-way-of-Scotland burr, noting that his first two albums, “Business as Usual” and “Cargo” sold millions of copies. After that? “Then nothing,” he said, to laughter from the crowd.
Hay fronted loaded his setlist Saturday night with songs from his solo albums, a tactic that in lesser hands could easily backfire. In the hands of a pro like Hay, even the concert-goers only there to hear “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” find much to like in Hay’s well-crafted and engaging solo output.
He opened with “Beautiful World,” from the 2002 album “Company of Strangers.” The song, performed by him alone, playing only an acoustic guitar, displayed his fine voice and trademark wordplay: “I tried talking to Jesus, but he just put me on hold / Said he’d been swamped by calls this week / And he could not shake his cold.”
“There’s Water Over You,” a song title inspired by his dad, is a gorgeous track, and Hay sang it beautifully: “I can touch you when I’m dreaming / Long into the lonely night / You hold me when I wake up screaming / Everything will be alright.” Also rich with nostalgia and longing was the country-tinted “Maggie”: “There the love I found / I said I’d never let you go / You just smiled at me / How was I to know?”
His crack band – Yosmel Montejo (bass), Jimmy Branly (drums) and San Miguel Perez (guitar), Scheila Gonzalez (keyboards/horns) and his wife, vocalist Cecilia Noël – then joined him on stage. With three Cubans (Montejo, Branly and Perez) and a Peruvian (Noël) on stage, the evening sported all kinds of Latin flavors.
Nowhere were those Latin flavors more evident than on the unexpected cover of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” featuring a highly energized Noël on lead vocals. I’m not sure it totally worked, but I kinda loved it anyway.
Five songs in, Hay landed on the first Men at Work, “Down by the Sea,” the final song on “Business as Usual.” It’s a mellow track and features plenty of saxophone, which Gonzalez handled easily.
As the show reached its second half, Hay treated fans to back to back doses of Men at Work: “It’s a Mistake,” the anti-nuke anthem from the band’s second album, “Cargo,” and the song that started it all, “Who Can It Be Now,” which launched the band from Australia into the stratosphere. As Sanchez let loose with that famous sax line, his top-notch band kicked things into high gear for a rocking version of this classic No. 1 hit.
“Down Under,” with Gonzalez taking on the flute parts, too, “Be Good Johnny,” and the best Men at Work song, “Overkill,” brought the fans to their feet.
Too soon, the show was ending as it began: With just Hay on stage, holding his acoustic guitar and singing one of the undiscovered gems of his catalog: “Next Year People.” This 2015 track from the album of the same name manages to be both optimistic and melancholy. It’s a fine bit of high-wire songwriting, and Hay once again shows that he has it mastered.
“Next year everything will come good / The rains they will fall and we’ll dance on the hood / We’ll fill up our bellies with plentiful food / We’ll eat drink and be merry / Yeah next year people wait and see / We’re next year people you and me.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of Colin Hay’s drummer, Jimmy Branly.
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