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Paul Kelly, Charlie Owen play songs to honor the dead

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Paul Kelly, left, and Charlie Owen are playing music from their album “Death’s Dateless Night” at Swedish American Hall. (Courtesy photo)

Australian folk rocker Paul Kelly and his longtime chum Charlie Owen came up with the idea for “Death’s Dateless Night” on the way to performing at a good friend’s funeral last year, one of many they had sadly been attending lately.

“We were just driving along thinking, ‘Well, here we go again. We’ve done this a few times, haven’t we?,’” says Kelly, 62. “Then we started talking about all the different funeral songs we’ve done, and Charlie says, ‘Gee, that would make a good record, wouldn’t it?’ That was the genesis of it.”

Kelly, who plays The City this weekend with guitarist Owen, already been taking creative risks, such as his 2016 release “Seven Sonnets & a Song,” on which he set Shakespearean poetry to music.

With Owen, he dabbled in elegies when they organized a three-disc tribute album to Aussie composer Maurice Frawley, after his 2009 death; his standard “Good Thing” is included on “Night.”

After he turned 50, Kelly says, he noticed that his musical peers started dropping like flies. When their mutual friend, The Divinyls’ Christina Amphlett died unexpectedly in 2013, he and ex-Divinyl Owen were both invited to play the funeral.

Kelly is always honored when he gets a request from a family member of the person who died.

“I kind of see it as my job, my role,” he says. “When someone dies, there are always people needed to do certain jobs, like organizing the flowers, cooking the food, picking up the relatives from out of town. And other people are asked to sing, so you do what you can do.”

Requests vary — sometimes it’s a tune by a vocalist the deceased loved, or sometimes an obscure number — but Kelly notices selection patterns.

“Night” opens with a piano-skeletal reading of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” then the Townes Van Zandt staple “To Live is to Fly.”

Kelly’s laconic rasp adds new character to Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On a Wire” and The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”

Two Kelly originals round out the collection, “Nukkanya” (from his 1994 solo bow, and Aboriginal for “see you”) and “Meet Me in the Middle of the Air.”

What makes a good funeral number? Kelly is more aware of what doesn’t; none of the “Night” material is morbid, mournful or love-themed.

People always choose things with a more philosophical viewpoint,” he says. “Like ‘Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,’ the Monty Python song. Although I confess, I haven’t done that one yet.”

Paul Kelly & Charlie Owen
Where: Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. May 21
Tickets: $17 to $20
Contact: (415) 431-7578, www.ticketfly.com

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