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On Valentine's Day, crowd loves Willis, Robison

Johnny D's, Somerville, MA, February 14, 2013

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The day and circumstances seemed in conflict. On Tuesday, Kelly Willis and husband Bruce Robison released "Cheater's Game," yet another excellent CD from the couple. Yet, here they were in the flesh performing songs - often about the pitfalls of love and life - on Valentine's Day.

No problem, however, in the second of two sets in putting out old and new (those at the first set said it was top shelf with the set list containing seven songs off the new CD).

Willis and Robison tended to trade off leads on songs with the other picking up on backing vocals or harmonies. Willis started with Sweet Sundown from her far too old last solo disc, 2007's "Translated From Love." (With four kids in the brood, Willis has not exactly enjoyed an active career in recent years).

The song found Willis in typical form. Her voice retains its beauty - pretty with enough twang and hiccups inserted to make for an excellent delivery. Put it another way - Willis is very easy on the ears. She always has been, and time has not changed a thing.

She proved that throughout with her take on He Don't Care About Me, Dreamin' and the excellent Heaven's Just a Sin Away.

The weightiest song of the set was doubtlessly Travelin' Soldier, about a soldier who's gone off to Viet Nam and died. The Dixie Chicks went to number one with it, but as Robison pointed out in his preface, "I always wanted to be a footnote." And as he said the song absorbed the biggest drop in history because Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines uttered her famous words in London about being ashamed of President George W. Bush.

Humor over - presumably bittersweet for Robison - he delivered the song with the requisite sadness, giving the audience a chance to absorb the words and sadness of the words.

Robison has encountered success with the big boys (Garth Brooks, George Strait, Tim McGraw all have recorded his songs, which pay the bills), but he also has enjoyed artistic success on his own terms. Robison turned in a good version of Desperately, although it didn't match Strait.

Later, the towering Robison (his head came within inches of touching the ceiling) delivered a superb, very funny "What Would Willie Do?" an ode to Nelson including some lines about his proclivity for the green stuff.

While Robison and Willis both played acoustic, Jeff Queen was superb on filling the songs on either pedal steel or guitar. John Ludwick provided the backing on bass.

The night ended with a rousing version of Tom T. Hall's chestnut Harper Valley PTA, about a woman who takes it to the hypocritical powers that be. Willis nailed the song perfectly, with a few vocal breaks, leaving the crowd wanting more. That didn't come, but being Valentine's Day, the crowd was in love with Robison and Willis. Rightfully so.