Concert review: Kelly WIllis and Radio Ranch

by Paul T. Mueller

Kelly Willis’ performance at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston on Jan. 22 was a testament to the enduring power of good music. The show, the second of two at the venue that night, was part of a brief tour in honor of the 25th anniversary of her debut album, Well Travelled Love. For the tour, as on the album, she was backed by her old band Radio Ranch, sounding just as good as they did back in the day.

Well Travelled Love, released in 1990, was fueled by Willis’ lively vocals and the rockabilly twang of her band, plus big-time Nashville production (by Tony Brown and John Guess) and promotion. The 11 songs were a mix of originals by drummer Mas Palermo (who also happened to be married to Willis at the time) and such Nashville notables as Steve Earle, Paul Kennerley, Monte Warden and John Hiatt. The band didn’t last very long and neither did Willis’ status as country music’s newest sweetheart (a role she wasn’t all that comfortable with), but none of that changes the fact that WTL was an excellent album and a fine showcase for everyone involved.

“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” Willis said before launching the show with “My Heart’s In Trouble Tonight,” WTL’s opening track. The band’s full sound and tight playing belied what must have been a pretty brief rehearsal period. “It’s like not a day has passed!” Willis declared after the song ended.

The rest of the show included seven more songs from Well Travelled Love, along with material from Willis’ subsequent albums. An occasional hiccup notwithstanding, all were marked by Willis’ strong, confident singing and excellent backup from the band – lead guitarist David Murray, steel guitarist Mike Hardwick, bassist Brad Fordham and drummer Palermo. On many songs the guitarists alternated fiery solos, while the rhythm section provided a solid foundation and Fordham contributed harmony vocals.

There wasn’t a throwaway in the 17-song set, but particular highlights included the twangy “I Don’t Want to Love You (But I Do)”; the beautifully weepy “World Without You,” from Kelly Willis’ second album, Bang Bang; the rocking “Teddy Boys,” from her most recent solo album, 2006’s Translated from Love; and the sweet, sad ballad “One More Time,” from WTL.

After closing the main set with a spirited rendition of Hiatt’s “Drive South,” Willis thanked the audience for taking part in “this wonderful moment in time.” Returning after a short break, she and the band performed “Take It All Out on You,” a song she said was co-written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, to whom she’s now married, and Palermo, during a breakup with Robison before they were married. “A song written by my husband and my ex-husband,” she said with a laugh. “That qualifies me to be a country singer!”