By KEVIN RANSOM AnnArbor.com Freelance Journalist
It’s been about 30 years now since the Australian band Men At Work was an almost unavoidable presence on the radio — when their huge hits, “Down Under,” “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Overkill” were in uber-heavy rotation.
The group’s star was a shooting one, though. Their 1981 debut album, “Cargo,” sold 10 million copies, but by 1985, they’d split up, mostly due to internal disputes, but also probably due to over-exposure.
But fast forward three decades, and the group’s singer, guitarist and main songwriter, Colin Hay, is still at it — still recording albums, still touring, and still making tuneful, ear-pleasing music. He’s released 11 solo albums, including his new disc, “Gathering Mercury,” and he still has a devoted audience: When he comes to town to play the Ark, it’s for a two-night stand, on Thursday and Friday. (The Friday show is sold out.)
And Hay isn’t the least bit bitter about the fact that he once played to outdoor festival crowds of 100,000 and is now playing venues that seat between 400 and 1,000 people. That’s because it’s still about the music for him, just like it was when he was playing small clubs in Melbourne, armed with just an acoustic guitar, in the 1970s.
“Of course, I was very happy that Men At Work were so successful, but that was so short-lived that it almost seems like a punctuation mark in my career,” says Hay, a native Scot who moved to Australia in 1967 with his family when he was just 14. “I’ve made a lot of music since then, and I think my music has gotten better over the years.
- Who: Former singer, guitarist and main songwriter for Men At Work, who has been cultivating his solo career for more than 20 years. With Chris Trapper.
- What: A melodic, appealing, tastefully-crafted mix of folk, rock, roots-pop and reggae.
- Where: The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor.
- When: Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m.
- How much: Thursday, $17.50. Friday, sold out. Tickets available from The Ark box office (with no service charge); Michigan Union Ticket Office, 530 S. State St.; Herb David Guitar Studio, 302 E. Liberty St.; or Ticketmaster.com.
“I’m not in control over things like whether or not my songs get on the radio, or my commercial success as a solo artist. I hit the big time, for a while, and over the last 20 years I’ve been in the process of doing the best work I can, and I’ve always had a live audience who would come to see me. In fact, my audience has been growing steadily in recent years.
“The way I look at it, I’m still ahead of the game.”
After Men At Work split up, Hay released a rock album for Columbia, titled “Looking for Jack.” It didn’t make the charts, and he took an offer from MCA, and made an album, “Wayfaring Sons,” that drew on the Celtic-folk influences of his youth. He then moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and formed his own label, Lazy Eye Records, in ’92.
Since then, his music has been a mix of solo-acoustic, folk-rock, straight pop, and the lilting Jamaican-pop style that was a signature of some of those Men At Work hits. He and former bandmate Greg Ham also toured with backing musicians as Men at Work, from 1996 to 2002, but playing to much smaller crowds than in the early ‘80s. However, they did perform for an estimated 2 billion TV viewers when they performed during the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Hay also toured with the Ringo Starr All Starr Band in ’03 and ’08.
His solo career has gotten some traction in recent years when some of his tunes, like “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” and “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” were featured on such TV shows as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Scrubs.” The latter song was also included in the soundtrack of the Zach Braff film “Garden State.”
Although Hay sometimes tours with a band, in the last several years, his solo shows have, more and more, become solo affairs.
“I still like rock ‘n’ roll — I still love loud music,” says Hay by phone from his tour van, as it rolls into New York City. “But the solo format does seem to have taken precedence. People seem to want that more, and the clubs tell me that’s the kind of show they’re more interested in. And of course, it’s harder to tour with a full band, because of the expense.”
On “Gathering Mercury,” Hay displays his range of influences. “Dear Father,” written after Hay’s father died last year, is fittingly poignant and understated, with Hay’s 12-string guitar and pensive vocals at the center — with wistful, muted violins and cellos perfectly suited to the melancholy of the lyrics.
“Half a Million Angels” has a Latin-inflected groove, propelled by equatorial percussion and piano, and “Where The Sky is Blue” has the sort of nudge-and-a-wink music-hall buoyancy we used to hear from Paul McCartney on occasion. “Far From Home,” meanwhile, rides atop a lilting Jamaican beat that evokes some of those reggae-fied Men At Work songs.
In all, the album is a fine collection of tasteful, subtly-produced, melodic roots-pop. And, many of these songs would hook a lot of earlobes on the radio, just like a lot of songs by Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, John Prine and Emmylou Harris would — if commercial radio was not so rigid, formulaic, and so slavishly devoted to synthetic, mechanized dance-pop and hip-hop.
Hay is also known among his fans as a hilarious onstage story-teller, as he relates tales from the road, playing with Ringo, and making the transition from platinum-selling superstar to starting over in the clubs.
“That’s what started it — me, playing for 20 people, after having played for audiences of 100,000, so I thought people deserved an explanation about how that all happened,” says Hay.
“I just began telling stories about what had happened with me, and then, what happened that day, and people found it funny, so I expanded on that. So, my show has developed into this piece, that is mostly music, but also includes stories about life’s peaks and valleys — the kinds of things that connect us all, the kinds of things almost everyone can relate to.”