By Barry Gilbert
The wait was more than worth it. Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis dazzled in a rare performance together Thursday night, their songs simultaneously reaching out to the head, the heart and the gut.
Headlining the second night of Twangfest 15 at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, Mr. and Mrs. Robison, backed by Will Dupuy on bass and Geoff Queen on pedal steel and guitar, offered 20 tunes over an hour and 20 minutes.
The set list mined the catalogues of each to good effect. But what made the night extra special was a handful of new duets that the couple unveiled, hinting of a career merger after about two decades of individual success.
It’s simply criminal that their mixture of country, pop and folk isn’t played on radio here, with the notable exception of Twangfest sponsor KDHX (88.1 FM). From the opening notes of “Sweet Sundown” to the closing masterpiece “Angry All the Time,” Robison and Willis displayed the honesty and simplicity that makes great songwriting.
Unfortunately, the crowd had thinned considerably by the time Robison and Willis took the stage at 11:20 p.m., perhaps discouraged by a low-energy first couple of hours.
Willis reached back to her rare 1996 EP “Fading Fast,” her liquid alto caressing the lyrics of “What World Are You Living In,” which she wrote with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. She then jumped to the future for the new and unreleased “Say Goodbye,” written with the prolific Chuck Prophet.
She also featured songs written for her by Robison, including “He Don’t Care About Me” and “Not Forgotten You.”
The slight Willis matched Robison in every way but height, her husband seemingly 10 feet tall on the raised Duck Room stage. And the stature of his songs fed the illusion.
All of Robison’s songs are standouts, but four reach for perfection and were uplifting live:
• “My Brother and Me,” about four generations of the Robison family that produced the singer and his singer-songwriter brother Charlie.
• “Wrapped,” a song both have recorded and that was covered by George Strait (“Thought I was doing fine/ About to get you off my mind/ I see your face and then I’m wrapped/ Around your pretty little finger again”).
• “Angry All the Time,” a raw relationship song covered by Tim McGraw (“The reasons that I can’t stay don’t have a thing to do with being in love/ And I understand that lovin a man shouldn’t have to be this rough/ You ain’t the only one who feels like this world left you far behind/ I don’t know why you gotta be angry all the time”).
• “Travelin’ Soldier,” a Vietnam-era story about a young girl waiting for her young soldier to come home.
That Robison and Willis kept the energy in the room cranked was no mean feat given that they followed a dynamic set by Eileen Rose and the Holy Wreck, featuring the Legendary Rich Gilbert – and we’ll keep the quotes off “legendary.” That guy can play.
Rose, a “half-Gaelic, half garlic” woman from Boston, is a powerful singer with an ear for rhythm and dynamics. She also has a bubbly and enthusiastic stage presence, and her banter was as entertaining as her music.
She also was 100 percent correct when she called herself a “very lucky chick singer” to be backed by Zach Shedd (Hank Williams III) on standup bass, Johnnie Barber (Merle Haggard, Johnny Paycheck) on drums and fellow former Bostonian Gilbert (Human Sexual Response) on guitar and pedal steel.
“Showoff!” she kidded Gilbert after a fiery solo on “Trying to Lose You,” which sports a guitar line that recalls the tone of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
Rose scored with originals including “20 Dollar Shoes,” “Third Time’s a Charm,” “Trouble From Tomorrow” and “Silver Ladle,” interspersed with two terrific covers: Tommy Duncan and Bob Wills’ “Time Changes Everything”; and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” for which she trotted out “my big girl voice.”
Preceding Rose and the Holy Wreck was Tennessee native Jill Andrews, a lovely soprano who presented several songs from her new CD, “The Mirror,” and St. Louis’ Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine, featuring Beth Bombara on harmonies and a wildly inventive percussion and keyboard kit that might have been acquired from yard sales.
Their music was sincere and well-performed but would have been better suited to a venue other than a basement bar and a crowd psyched for a festival. However, Morgan’s and Andrews’ sets weren’t helped by some in the crowd, whose rude conversations later had to be shushed midsong by Robison.