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In the music spotlight: Colin Hay

Colin Hay | PHOTO BY SEBASTIAN SMITH

Colin Hay has spent half a lifetime establishing hard-won success under his own name. He left Men at Work behind with his 1987 solo debut, “Looking for Jack.” Stadium-sized crowds dwindled to scattered souls in small clubs during lean times. Thirty years later, however, Hay packs theaters like Park West or the Vic; he’ll perform March 10 at Thalia Hall. Audiences are now populated with devotees pining for solo gems like “Waiting For My Real Life to Begin” and “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You,” possibly outnumbering those craving definitive ‘80s classics like “Overkill” or “Who Can it Be Now?

“There’s no question that that’s gratifying,” says Hay. “For a lot of people who have been coming to see me for a long time, though, it’s always been somewhat conspiratorial. When it was fewer people, they weren’t necessarily coming to hear ‘Down Under.’” They wanted to know what I was doing now. I think they even liked the fact that it was really a secret. The old songs travel with you, though, and you embrace them.”

Fierce Mercy” is Hay’s lucky 13th solo album, and finds him in top form. At 63, his voice remains impossibly youthful, easily hitting the high notes of captivating roots-pop melodies for songs like “Come Tumbling Down.” As an expert storyteller with a knack for bringing characters to life, Hay has infused his new material with warmth and wry humor.

Some of his subjects are close to home. Like “Did You Just Take the Long Way Home” from 2015’s “Next Year People,” “She Was the Love of Mine” is a tender devotional to Hay’s late mother Isabel. “She loved to live so much,” he says. “She was a very colorful person; very willful. In the last year of her life, when she knew she was dying, it really annoyed her. Her attitude was, ‘I don’t have time for this death nonsense.’ I got to spend a lot of time with her at a flat in Melbourne that I have, overlooking the bay. We would go out onto the little balcony and watch the Spirit of Tasmania go out of the port as the sun went down.”

The recent documentary film “Waiting For My Real Life” describes Hay’s rocket ship to stardom and ensuing crash, and years lost to alcohol. It also illustrates his steady, incremental return, with a portrait of creativity as his salvation. One “Fierce Mercy” song called “I’m Going to Get You Stoned” reveals Hay’s perspective on the value of time. These days, he’s determined to squeeze the essence from each moment: “Sure beats lying in the sun,” he sings.

“I always fantasize about relaxing,” says Hay. “I’m actually not that bad at it. It’s just that I like to relax in the studio. You’re surrounded by sexy red blinking lights and guitars and drums and a piano. It’s a great place to be. I like diving in the ocean, but the idea of just lying around is not for me.”

* Colin Hay, 8 p.m. Mar. 10, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, $29-$65; thaliahallchicago.com.

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.

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