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Stage Buzz: Live Review and Photo Gallery • Colin Hay at Park West

| September 6, 2021

Colin Hay

Park West, Chicago, IL

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Review by Jeff Elbel, photos by Philamonjaro


Colin Hay has spent decades building his brand as one of popular music’s premier solo acoustic entertainers and all-around raconteurs. His performance benefits from a miraculously ageless voice, fluid and dexterous guitar playing, and stories that overflow with good humor and sharp wit. On Sunday, Hay returned to Chicago with a band for the first time in many years. It was a reminder that he originally made his name as a formidable rock and roll frontman.

Hay drove that point home immediately, playing two fan-favorite deep cuts from Men at Work’s global smash hit debut album Business as Usual. Hay mentioned that Park West was the first place he had played in Chicago. That was 39 years ago with his old band, he said. “So, now I’m gonna play here with my new band!” The sympathetic portrait of a homeless man “Touching the Untouchables” and free-spirited “No Restrictions” were rendered with power and affection by a talented ensemble that Hay later endearingly dubbed a “band of immigrants” (himself included). The members had traveled to Chicago by way of Los Angeles via Australia via Scotland (Hay), with others hailing originally from Cuba, Guatemala, and Peru (Hay’s vivacious partner Cecilia Noël).

The wisecracks came fast and furious. “I thought I’d play a couple of Men at Work songs first just you wouldn’t think, ‘Who the fu*k is that guy?” Hay said. “I’ve had a very erratic career. The first two albums sold millions. And then, um, pretty much nothing after that. I’ve sold hundreds! Hundreds of my solo records.” Hay, however, had no trouble engaging the audience with a singalong for the less-familiar but instantly catchy “Tumbling Down” from 2017’s Fierce Mercy. “I’m sure you’ve already been singing today because you’ve all been to church,” quipped Hay to the Sunday night crowd. “Hell, yeah!” called someone from the crowd.

Multi-instrumentalist and Zappa Plays Zappa veteran Scheila Gonzales filled a key role in completing Hay’s sound, playing saxophone on the bluesy acoustic funk of “Can’t Take This Town” and Men at Work’s debut hit “Who Can it Be Now.” Hay mentioned the excitement of seeing the latter song rise to the top of the charts in North America, but the slightly dimmed enthusiasm when it only reached #2 in his home country of Australia. Gonzales also covered the late Greg Ham’s territory on flute for songs like “Down Under.”

Hay featured three consecutive songs from his new album; a covers project called “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” that served as a form of musical comfort in its creation during pandemic times. Hay performed the title track, a hit for Dusty Springfield. Jimmy Webb’s timeless hit for Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” was warmly received. Hay called the Kinks’ masterpiece “Waterloo Sunset” a perfect pop song and reminisced about hearing it on the dock as a boy when his family emigrated from Scotland to Australia. Later in the set, he added “Ooh La La,” citing the Faces as his favorite band during his late teens.

Hay also provided a glimpse of his upcoming album of original material, due for 2022 release. “The Sea of Always” was a wistful mid-tempo pop song, with a chorus about the type of wanderlust that has characterized the singer’s own life experience.

Next, Hay returned to the Men at Work catalog. Hay explained that the group had originally earned a reputation as a “weed band,” and deservedly so as he had written the bulk of the band’s material stoned on very strong pot. “I’m not trying to condone its use if there’s any young, impressionable people in the audience,” Hay said, deadpan. “But it certainly worked for me.” The group played the blissfully lazy Business as Usual album-closer “Down by the Sea.” With a duration of roughly eight minutes and time for deft solos around the bandstand, Hay told the audience to count themselves lucky since the original running time had been four hours and forty minutes. The band drew a big response and full participation during the reggae protest-pop of “It’s a Mistake,” featuring sun-kissed soloing by guitarist San Miguel Pérez.

A story of youthful days short-cutting home across the graveyard accompanied “Now and the Evermore.” Hay recalled trips to the countryside with Greg Ham in the early ‘70s and a mushroom-fueled epiphany on one such outing as the inspiration for “Love is Everywhere.”

“Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” has been a highlight of Hay’s solo acoustic shows, and the yearning song bloomed into Technicolor with its six-piece band arrangement. It set up one of the song’s sole disappoints when Hay and company did not offer a similar interpretation of melancholy masterpiece “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.”

“Here’s a good song; you’ll like this one,” said Hay, introducing “Overkill.” The song featured more supple saxophone from Gonzales and soulful vocal accompaniment from Noël. The song set up two final Men at Work favorites, with an extended run through “Down Under” and a parting shot of adrenalin with “Be Good Johnny.” Hay’s voice never faltered, hitting the same keening high notes in the same key that he did as a young rocker visiting Park West for the first time in 1982. Hay returns to Thalia Hall for his solo act on March 26, 2022, which should be tremendous fun. But Sunday’s show gave a welcome glimpse at other strengths that the versatile artist keeps at the ready.

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