All words: Marie Formica — All photos: Craig Hunter Ross
The Birchmere was packed. Every seat in the entire house, packed. Elderly couples, children, and everyone in between waited in that room, seated and facing the stage. People showed up in the hundreds to see this musician perform. That’s just one musician they came to watch, one, plunked in the middle of a fifteen foot long stage all on his own. That man was Colin Hay, former frontman of 1980s sensation Men At Work, armed with nothing but a mike, guitar, effects pedal and ten tiny bottles of water.
If you have ever heard “Land Down Under,” you’ve heard Colin Hay sing one of his compositions. By my calculations, everyone has heard Colin Hay, at least this way. If my calculations are incorrect (impossible, but I’ll humor you) and you haven’t heard it, watch:
Don’t stop listening there. His performance at the Birchmere proved Colin Hay is worth a second, and third look. With thirtyish years of performances behind him, he’s got a great presence onstage. Partly because he’s a storyteller. Between songs, he spoke to us of his dad plucking the family from Scotland and whisking them halfway round the world to Australia. “Everything was big,” he said, “The sky was big.” Heavy stuff for the first fifteen minutes of your set. For all the serious talk, he had jokes armed, at the ready. Before breaking into “Who Can It Be Now,” he says in his heavy Australian-Scottish-Everythingish brogue, “It’s been 25 years since ‘Who Can it Be Now’ and ‘Land Down Under,’ but people think I’m still interested in playing them. I’m not interested at all in playing them.” Then he went into a full-on muse, saying, “But once I start playing, I find I quite enjoy it.”
This had to be a difficult show for him. Hay seems to be a thoughtful man, remarking, for instance, that he liked coffee partially because he can picture his heroes creating great things after enjoying a coffee in the morning. I say this was a difficult performance because of Greg Ham’s death. The famous saxophone solo from the radio version of “Who Could it Be Now” was performed in one take by Men at Work band member Greg Ham. The recorded solo we all know so well was supposed to be a practice take, and it was perfect enough to keep on the official release. Hay knew Ham since high school. Ham died three days before the show. “He was a beautiful person,” he said at one point. “He’s gone now, and that’s sad.” Hay was alone on stage, but it felt like he was far away from us in the audience too.
Hay started on this subject later. “It’s terrible to lose the people you love. It’s weird and you think, ‘Where do they go?’ Religious people say they go to heaven. They get to go up and hang out with the Lord. That would be good, for a while,” he joked. Then he began to play the title track of his 2011 album, “Gathering Mercury.” It’s a solid song, filled with interesting melodic twists and powerfully simple lyrics that ink Colin Hay’s signature on a song. Singing the chorus to the line of a tuneful hook, it was difficult not to think on life’s end: “Until I cross over, I’m gathering mercury.”
Colin Hay has had good times, though. He was sure to remind us of that. Sir Paul McCartney came to see him play in California (Hay lives there now) and liked his songs. McCartney at one point said, “We want to come to your house.” Hay asked, “Should I cook something?” McCarney answered in the affirmative, so Hay said, “So you want to come to house for dinner then.” McCartney arrived on the prescribed day, and Hay saw him walking down the driveway to his house. “Fucking Paul McCartney is walking down my driveway,” he thought. Hay cooked dinner, and to his surprise, Sir Paul McCartney gathered the dishes after dinner and ran them under the tap. “I had a moment there,” Hay said, “Fuckin’ Paul McCartney is doing my dishes.”
“Going Somewhere,” the song Hay played after the McCartney story worked effectively with his narrative: “Doesn’t it feel good to be alive when you’re going somewhere?” the chorus goes. He strummed the guitar with some urgency, tension in the song building. The tension resolves halfway through the chorus for a few bars, during one he concludes “Then I remember I’m no ordinary man and I’m going somewhere.”
One of the best ways to hear Colin Hay the way he played at the Birchmere, acoustic. Hearing stories like how Hay was a guest star on “Scrubs” is half the fun. Even if you’re not a “Scrubs” fan, Hay’s cameo as a traveling musician of sorts is a cool when-worlds-collide situation. In the episode “My Overkill,” Hay plays his song “Overkill” to characters on the show in varied states of being: street musician, patient in a gown and wheelchair, patient getting a heart defibrillator to the chest, dead guy in the morgue– the show takes place in a hospital, ok? In the episode, his lyrics are particularly poignant to guilt-ridden characters: “I can’t get to sleep, I think about the implications of diving in too deep, and possibly the complications.” Hay, onstage, said he met Zach Braff at a party, and Braff told him he’d try and get a couple songs on the “Scrubs” soundtrack. “Scrubs” creator and executive producer Bill Lawrence met Hay along with Braff one night. Lawrence asked, “Why aren’t your songs on the radio?” “That’s a fucking good question,” Hay said he replied.
Eventually, “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You,” ended up on the soundtrack for Braff’s cult hit “Garden State” (the whole soundtrack is worth a listen, by the way). “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” hit platinum with its rerelease on the soundtrack. It had only “reached mahogany status” when Colin released it on his own. “It’s called, ‘I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You,’ but you do, don’t you?” Hay said. The song is a great example of his ability to accompany himself as his bassist, lead guitarist and percussionist on the single guitar. The six strings of the guitar break into two instruments, and he’s a full band. Practiced, he doesn’t seem to notice his own supreme guitar picking skill or the guitar at all, preferring to focus on singing his lyrics, voice strong and clear and full of emotive tonality.