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Willis leaves crowd feeling anything but blue

Atwood's Tavern, Cambridge, Mass., June 4, 2018

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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One thing has changed for Kelly Willis as she returned to this small club for the first time in four years where she was last seen partnering with husband Bruce Robison. Willis finally has own new material to push as "Back Being Blue" was just out as her first solo album in 11 years!

Since then, Willis has been busy raising four kids and when making music, she put out albums and hit the highway with Robison.

All well and good, but Willis remains a force on her own as well. Vocally pleasing on the ears, Willis's vocal chops have not changed much at all over the course of 28 years. That was apparent from the lead off-off song of the night, the title track of "Back Being Blue."

Willis maintains a soothing voice, inflecting the song with just the right touch. When she sang Rodney Crowell's "We'll Do It For Love Next Time," one could just as easily imagine Willis was the one who wrote it as well as hearing Crowell's sensibilities behind it.

Willis leaned heavily on the new disc and its more traditional, sometimes honky-tonk sound with a slight soulful touch. The only song Willis didn't play from "Back Being Blue" was its weakest, "I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter)."

Not only was Willis an engaging singer, but talked just enough with a funny line or backdrop. Willis talked on fighting Robison to record his song, "Wrapped" first. "I cut it first," she said, adding, "But the only thing that matters is that George Strait cut it last." Obviously a good thing when it came to the piggy bank.

Introducing her old chestnut and soon making her take on The Kendalls' "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" sound fresh, Willis said, "This is my favorite cheating song. As I tell Bruce, I like to live vicariously."

Much credit goes as well to Willis' backing four-piece band. The main tour de force was the dual threat of Geoff Queen on either pedal steel or lead guitar. He tended to play in sharp, short bursts on guitar, giving a most twangy reading. His pedal playing pretty much occupied the same musical space - quite pleasing.

Willis topped off the night with a great take on Tom T. Hall's "Harper Valley P.T.A." with just the right swagger and attitude.

It may have been a long long time since Willis has done her own thing, but make no mistake about it. Her talents - ranging from singing to songs and song selection to the warmth of personality - remain ever intact. Put it another way...her latest may be called "Back Being Blue," but she sure didn't leave the crowd feel that way by night's end.