Maybe it's a sign of universal understanding: Kelly Willis' return is a major happening. After all, the Americana sweetheart has made fans wait some time between albums. As she makes her way to the stage in a simple cowgirl outfit - blue jeans, white camisole, denim vest - it's as if no time has passed.
Willis flashes that easy smile, and the crowd lights up. "It's been five years," Willis says, her words all but drowned out by the enthusiastic cheers, "and I am the most grateful person for having a set list in front of me! Since this is the release party for my new album, we're gonna be playing lots of new songs for y'all tonight."
It's true - material from the new "Translated From Love" fittingly dominates the set. The songs - and Willis' joyous delivery, which only fuels the rampant celebration tonight - are a splendid reminder of Willis' inherent ability to seamlessly flow between straight rock and roll and heartbroke country.
Highlights of the 90-minute set include the album's lead track "Nobody Wants to Go to the Moon Anymore," "Sweet Sundown" (written with "Translated From Love" producer Chuck Prophet) and "Too Much to Lose." Each builds upon the last to offer as clear a definition of "alt.-country" as has ever been issued.
"This is a song I try to get played on the radio," Willis says, introducing the full-throttle "Teddy Boys." "So, thank you KGSR!" (The Austin radio station has been spinning the new single heavily for the past three weeks.) "Not Forgotten You," from her husband Bruce Robison's 1995 selt-titled album, provides the evening's most poignant moment.
Earlier, opener Hayes Carll proves an inspired pairing. With a new guitarist and bassist filling out his Gulf Coast Orchestra, the quartet offer up the regional hit "It's a Shame," the Guy Clark co-write "Rivertown" and a new tune called "Drunken Poet's Dream," which Carll penned with Ray Wylie Hubbard. "I've got a new record coming out in 2010," Carll joked about his forthcoming debut for the Lost Highway imprint. "So, I'm just trying to get the buzz out early."
A chugging take on "Highway 87" and the languid "Take Me Away," from Carll's stunning 2005 effort "Little Rock" are the high-water marks of his 45-minute set.
But it's his between-song banter that really wins over the crowd. (This, he announces, is his first appearance at the venerable Austin venue.)
"This is a song about the Bolivar Peninsula," Carll says by way of introducing the former. "In case y'all don't know, a peninsula is a body of land surrounded on three sides by water." Dramatic pause. "I'm not trying to talk down to you, but we played Dallas the other night, and that went straight over their heads."