Kelly Willis – Lee’s Liquor Lounge (Minneapolis, MN)
“My husband and ex-husband wrote this song together, which qualifies me to be a country singer,” Kelly Willis laughed before she broke into the second number on her set list, “Take It All Out On You”.
The full house that had gathered at Lee’s Liquor Lounge eagerly laughed with Willis. And her light humor turned out to set a pleasant tone for the next hour and 45-minute, 25-song set. The crowd was warm and friendly, very Minnesota-nice, but Willis seemed to be suffering from a touch of stage fright. After all, she hadn’t been back to visit her fans in Minnesota since the early ’90s. It was easy to see she was among friends, including fellow musicians Gary Louris (Jayhawks) and Jim Boquist (Son Volt), both of whom collaborated with Willis on her 1996 EP Fading Fast; she even dedicated “He Don’t Care About Me” to Boquist, who played bass and sang backup vocals on the recorded version of the song.
The inviting Lee’s atmosphere seemed to fit Willis: Her classic honky-tonk vocals and backing band’s down-home feel mixed nicely with the wood-paneled roadhouse setting of the downtown Minneapolis watering hole. Just as the bar was bustling with grandiose spirits, it seemed that Willis was the queen of the party, be it a shy one at best.
Tonight was her night to debut a handful of tracks from her upcoming CD tentatively titled What I Deserve, which is scheduled for a January release on Rykodisc. She also played plenty of songs from her three MCA albums and the one A&M EP, including such crowd-pleasers as “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away”, “Fading Fast” and “What World Are You Living In?”
The standout songs of the night came from her mix of well-chosen covers: a gentle delivery of Robison’s “Wrapped”, which was truly tugged at the heartstrings; a very touching cover of Australian Paul Kelly’s “Hidden Things”; and a homeland tribute by way of Doug Sahm’s “Texas Me”. She also did a first-class rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City”, but imagining the angelic Willis hitting anyone is not an easy feat; visions of the late Mother Theresa beating up a leper are easier to conjure up.
The only thing the show was lacking was adventure. What had potential to be a night of surprise, especially with Louris and Boquist in the audience, turned out to be a calm, solid performance displaying Willis’ pure musical talent. Which isn’t a bad thing; it just wasn’t quite what it might have been.