Bruce Robison / Kelly Willis – Lynagh’s (Lexington, KY)
Ironically, the local paper billed the concert as an opportunity for Kelly Willis “to shine in an evening all her own.” Shine, she did — beaming a contagious smile between songs and filling the night with the warmth and sweetness of her country-tinged vocals. However, it was far from “an evening all her own.” Willis shared the stage with, and generally adopted a sort of second-fiddle posture to, her fellow Texan singer-songwriter husband, Bruce Robison. Of the 25 songs the two performed, Willis provided lead vocals for barely half, and most of the between-song patter was handled by Robison.
Standing center stage and playing lead guitar, Robison focused primarily on songs from his new CD, Wrapped, on Boar’s Nest Records. While he sang and played, an obviously adoring Willis smiled at her partner, played rhythm guitar and added harmony and backup vocals. Despite an occasional criticism from the crowd — at one point, a woman behind me lamented, “Why don’t you just let Kelly sing?” — the unusually large Lynagh’s audience was well-behaved and generally appreciative, if somewhat surprised by the shared headliner arrangement. Willis’ songs were greeted with more applause and enthusiasm, but Robison’s work was also well-received.
Willis sang songs from her early ’90s MCA albums but focused primarily on more recent material, including the tunes on her hard-to-find 1996 A&M EP, Fading Fast. “It’s available only in Texas,” Robison announced, “and tonight only here in Lexington.” (Lynagh’s stayed open more than an hour past closing while Robison and the band sold CDs and T-shirts and Willis handed out autographs and took photos with enthusiastic fans.)
Willis was at her beguiling best performing the EP’s title track, a tune she co-wrote with John Leventhal. “Fading Fast” is a typically conflicted county song in the Hank Williams-Gram Parsons vein, its undercurrent of resigned sadness seemingly at odds with the urgency and enthusiasm of the vocals. Willis managed to make the song’s naively optimistic opening (“If I ran so far that my life can’t follow me/Would it keep the world from up and swallowing me?”) at once compelling and tragic. Of course you can’t run that far or that fast, she suggests, but you damn well better try.
Other highlights included a rousing version of “What World Are You Living In?” which Willis co-wrote with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks and recorded with Louris and Son Volt backing her up (“the whole alternative country in one song,” she quipped), and a razor-sharp, room-silencing encore cover of Elvis Costello’s “Indoor Fireworks”.
Robison also is a talented songwriter/performer, and the songs from Wrapped are consistently catchy. My favorites include “See You Around”, a toe-tapping, swing-dance-inducing, Cajun-spiced variation on Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You”; a drunken anthem to self-pity called “She Don’t Care About Me”; and a bluegrass-infused cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Loved You”, a powerful duet with Willis.
Strong musical backing throughout was provided by Brian Walsh on standup bass and, especially, Amy Tiven on fiddle and mandolin.