Fifteen years or so ago I had tickets to see Kelly Willis. I’d fallen in love with her What I Deserve album and was really looking forward to seeing her, only for the gig to be cancelled. As it turned out, her whole tour was cancelled, I think because she was expecting.
So, as there had been no UK visits between then and now, I was delighted a few months back to see she was at last touring with husband Bruce Robison. I booked tickets when they went on sale and counted down the days.
Then I saw that Sam Outlaw had been added to the bill. I’d bought his album Angeleno after hearing a live radio session but had been underwhelmed apart from a couple of songs. Then I found out Sam was headliner and Bruce & Kelly only the support. This struck me as a mismatch of epic proportions. A comparative newcomer with one album against an experienced couple with more than a dozen albums between them. The malign hand of the marketing men in action, it would appear.
On the night the good news turned out to be that they had equal sets, though Sam still topped the bill.
An MC took the stage to introduce Bruce and Kelly. As I grow older I find this something I appreciate more and more. It gives the audience a chance to settle and focus while the act gets a build up and are greeted with a huge round of applause, rather than ambling on stage to half hearted applause as people realise this is the act and not roadies sorting the guitars and mics. After fifteen years waiting, it signals my perseverance is about to be rewarded.
The first thing that strikes you is that Bruce and Kelly are really relaxed and personable. We get treated to a hour’s worth of material from their solo albums, though most material is from their duo albums Cheater’s Game and Our Year. One surprise is to find that Bruce wrote Travelin’ Soldier, which he performs towards the end of the set (a curse of the CD – little time is spent inspecting sleeve notes and lyrics that are printed in tiny fonts, so information like this remains unknown).
It’s a set of swapped leads, but really it didn’t matter given the riches to be mined. On one hand I can suggest that my highlights were 9,999,999 Tears and Cradle of Love, but picking a couple of particular songs suggest that the set might have been uneven. It wasn’t, it was one great performance followed by another. I’m not a big fan of singalongs, but I got totally into singing the chorus of Wrapped. It was simply an hour of joy, over all too soon.
So we had an hour of great music, but there are loads more songs to be played. After all these years we could have done with a Springsteenesque three hour marathon, not a mere sixty minutes. They had to finish to make way for Sam Outlaw.
Given the above considerations, with Sam taking time that Bruce and Kelly could more than have filled and that I wasn’t overly impressed with his album, I was considering my options for his set. I thought I should give him a chance, but against that I thought as we were in the middle of the second row any exit would be extremely conspicuous.
Sam came on stage looking very much the dude in his suit, dress shirt and string tie, topped off with a hat but his opening quips to the us in the audience were immediately endearing. He was greeted by a few people singing Happy Birthday. The thing was, he said thanking them with a smile, the previous day was his birthday and here was how it was going to go – he was going to sing and then he was going to talk some more and then play some more and with that he went into the first song.
Within a minute my cynicism waned away. This guy is good. He’s coming over far more strongly than on the album. He’s a natural performer and within a couple of minutes he owns the stage.
He’s accompanied by Molly Jenson on guitar and vocals and two excellent musicians on pedal steel and bass. Every time he lauded them I missed their names among the applause, but they were great. Sorry guys, you deserve better than this cursory acknowledgement.
The first song ended and I looked over at my wife who has a big smile on her face. I nodded and settled in. For a moment I feel like an idiot for my earlier negativity, but then I settle into enjoying this terrific set. Ghost Town was superb, but other than Angeleno and Jesus Take The Wheel I don’t really know the song titles I can’t pick other highlights by title. Song titles don’t matter, Sam Outlaw is a guy who delivers in spades. This is a wonderful performance. His between song banter adds a lot. All doubts banished I’ve returned home and listened to the Angeleno album with fresh ears.
The gig is topped off when Sam brings Bruce and Kelly back and they finish with a Don Williams’ song. Slightly underrehearsed it may be, but it’s a fun end to a brilliant night.
This was a night of music that lifted the spirit, infused your heart with joy and sanctified your soul. It was only two hours in all so I want both Sam Outlaw and Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison to come back to the UK and to make it sooner rather than later and when they do I want them to play all night long.