Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis – 3rd & Lindsley (Nashville, TN)
“We’re not really a duo,” Kelly Willis reminded the audience. “We just play one on TV.”
Out here in places that aren’t Austin, it’s been a long time since there’s been any chance to catch Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison at work together, taking the leads in turn — other than in that Claritin commercial of theirs. Busy with their strikingly fast-growing family (four kids now), Willis has been especially scarce; she was last seen and heard at any length here in Nashville, for instance, during the 2002 Americana Conference.
This rare appearance, one of just a handful of shows in a mini-tour to support their recent yuletide release, turned out to be a pleasingly varied evening for musical catch-up and previews, as well as the advance-billed takes by the Robisons on holiday tunes both familiar or new and twisted. A seven-piece band, which added strings to your basic rock/twang ensemble, backed them through the songs that have become mainstream country hits, the Americana staples, the by-the-fireside ballads, the shaggy hound stories, and the rock.
Willis seemed quite happy to be back, tearing into her more familiar tunes (“If I Left You”, “What I Deserve”, “Heaven’s Just A Sin Away”), her singing as delicate and tough as ever. Her teaser of the evening was the preview of a couple of the edgy rock-leaning songs she wrote with Chuck Prophet for a CD scheduled to be released later this year. It’s apparently pretty well removed from the country bag for the most part, though “Sweet Little One”, a modern lullaby for some of those Robison kids, was not miles from the neighborhood.
Since you never know who’s in the audience at this homey Nashville club, Robison delivered some of his songs that have charted in mainstream country covers and paid a good deal of the mortgage — “Wrapped” (now on disc by George Strait), “Angry All The Time” (a husband-wife duet, as always), and also, with all the history now attached to the Dixie Chicks’ hit version, “Travelin’ Soldier”. (“I always wanted to be a footnote,” Bruce joked. “Now I’m the writer of the fastest-falling #1 in history.”)
Robison’s way with a story-song was strongly on display. The frank, true family memory song “My Brother And Me” got a particularly warm response, as it often does, but then so did two of his ideas of holiday fare — “Oklahoma Christmas”, which memorializes a holiday spent with resentful in-laws (“Pass the goddamn sweet potatoes”) and the always timely “Please Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk”.
The Christmas songs weren’t all like that, though. Kelly’s delivery of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, the duo’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, and the finale, a singalong on Elvis’ “Blue Christmas”, were seasonably sweet and even sexy in the most straightforward of ways.
As a bonus, they even offered a multi-generational family slide show. Gosh that Charlie Robison and his brother Bruce were cute kids.