This was Kelly’s second working trip to the UK in the last couple of years. The previous visit was a series of duo shows with husband Bruce Robison. Memories of her last tour with a band in solo guise were likely to be hazy for those who attended, but a throwback element to this evening’s show ensured the years rolled back.
The format for this tour is Kelly leading from the front on acoustic guitar and vocals, exquisitely supported by Geoff Queen on electric and pedal steel and the coolest rhythm section you could hope to meet in bassist John Michael Schoepf and Joshua Blue playing the drums. Together they oozed out twenty evocative tracks steeped in a country sound that thrives south-west of the Mississippi river.
Although Kelly steered clear of the material that formed her brace of duet albums with Bruce, which have bridged the solo hiatus, the set list expanded a twenty-five year range. Early fans, especially those hooked in when CMT aired in Europe, had the treat of four tracks from her 1993 eponymous album, while recent converts were dealt the near entirety of BACK BEING BLUE.
Strolling onto the stage at 9 o’clock, it did not take Kelly long to hit her stride and slip into an effortless zone of a cultured artist perfectly equipped to deal the cut glass country song. Shifting times have edged her style away from the limelight, but make no mistake this was country music as it was meant to be. The pedal steel interludes courtesy of Geoff were absolutely divine and his frequent guitar licks were no mean feat either. In fact, he was in constant use during the entire evening as his acoustic guitar skills were borrowed by support artist Kerry Fearon, who made the trip over from Ireland to sing a few familiar cover songs to stoke the western atmosphere in a venue heading in the direction of the Texas climate.
The majority of the twenty songs had a brief introduction even if it was to distinguish the difference between those she wrote and the esteemed songwriters Kelly has either worked with or covered. Obviously, the name Bruce Robison cropped up several times including ‘Not Forgotten You’, ‘Wrapped ‘ and ‘Take It All Out On You’. The latter Kelly wryly introduced as a co-write between Bruce and her ex-husband Mas Palermo. Other familiar names to crop up were Rodney Crowell, the architect of ‘We’ll Do It For Love Next Time’ off the new record, John Leventhal (of Rosanne Cash fame) who co-wrote ‘Get Real’ and Jayhawk, Gary Louris who did likewise on another oldie in ‘What I Deserve’.
Of course, Kelly Willis is a fine songwriter in solo mode. Over half the new album originated from this source with the title track opening her eighty minute set and ‘Freewheeling’ going a long way to representing the current course of her life i.e. composed in a car while ferrying around her four kids. On an evening of constant highs, one instantly hitting the recall button was another solo write and the implicitly country sounding ‘What the Heart Doesn’t Know’, delivered as you would expect with feeling and obligatory pedal steel.
By the time the band returned to the stage to send everybody home happy with the Marshall Crenshaw song ‘Whatever Way the Wind Blows’, recorded by Kelly in her MCA years, a full and intoxicating performance of real deal country music was in the bag. Each of the twenty songs were recorded by Kelly at some stage of her career and if anybody was a little vague about her prior to the show, then you had a vibrant showcase of why she is such a revered artist in circles starting in Austin Texas before reverberating around the wider country music world.
Back in 2013 I saw Kelly and Bruce play a couple of duo sets at the Calgary Folk Festival in Canada. A quick chat at the time revealed that they would love to return to the UK to play some tunes if it could be made to happen. Five years later this has now happened twice. For specific fans of Kelly Willis and a lengthy career, this band show was the one they wanted. They have duly been rewarded for their patience. Therefore, no more hiatus’s please, the world is richer when she is recording and playing shows, not just for her home fans, but those overseas. The Maze in Nottingham proved the perfect host and Cosmic American showed why they have been at the forefront of bringing high class US artists to the UK for twenty years. A worthy candidate for gig of the year, even as we just pass the half way point.