Preview: Conroe Americana Music Festival

 

By Paul T. Mueller

Music gets another festival to call its own this year, with the Conroe Americana Music Festival set to debut May 5-7 in Conroe, Texas. The event, described by the promoters as “a grassroots premier festival featuring a mix of Bluegrass, Rockabilly, Folk, Texas Country, Roots Rock, Blues, and Americana music,” will take place in Conroe’s historic downtown, about 40 miles north of downtown Houston.

The festival’s website, http://conroeamericanamusicfestival.com/, currently lists more than 50 scheduled performers. They include such well-known names as Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis (aka the First Couple of Texas Americana), John Fullbright, Billy Joe Shaver, The Mastersons, Gurf Morlix, Angaleena Presley, Dale Watson and Ray Benson, and Mike Farris. Of course, there’s a heavy presence of Texas artists, familiar in the Lone Star State but possibly less well known elsewhere, such as bluesman Guy Forsyth; songstress Terri Hendrix, with longtime collaborator Lloyd Maines; rockers Uncle Lucius; former True Believer Jon Dee Graham; veteran folkie Eric Taylor; Houston-based honky-tonkers Mike Stinson and The John Evans Band; Austin-based blues-folkie Ruthie Foster, and Austin blues-rocker Carolyn Wonderland. The complete lineup can be found here and the schedule here.

With free parking and short distances between the festival’s six venues, the weekend’s toughest task figures to be deciding which performer to see at any given time. There are six venues – four indoor spaces and two somewhat larger outdoor stages – with scheduling seemingly set up in hopes of dispersing the crowd. For instance, the Friday lineup includes shows by Gurf Morlix and the Mastersons both at 9 p.m., at pubs located across the street from each other. Those sets will be partially overlapped by four other shows, including Hendrix and Maines and Austin-based bluesmen The Peterson Brothers. Scheduling dilemmas may be eased to some extent by the fact that some performers will play more than once.

As is often the case at the outset of such events, ticket prices are reasonable: $35 for a one-day pass for Friday or Sunday, $50 for a Saturday pass, or $75 for a three-day pass. Parking is free and food will be available from several food trucks.

According to the festival’s website, the event was “(e)stablished through the Conroe Downtown Area Association (501c4) [and] the proceeds of the festival will be used to enhance the Historic Downtown Conroe area with improved signing and beautification projects.”

The Conroe Americana Music Festival gets under way at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 5, and wraps up at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 7.

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!”

Review: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison in concert

By Paul T. Mueller–Titles are easy to throw around, and sometimes they’re just so much music-biz hype. Not so in the case of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. Partners both on and off the stage, they have been called “The First Couple of Texas Country Music” and “Americana royalty,” among other things. At McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston on June 30, Bruce and Kelly showed a capacity crowd how they got those titles and why they deserve them.

Bruce and Kelly packed 22 songs into their hour-and-a-half set, the first of two shows scheduled for the evening, and the third of four in a two-night stand. (They’ve pretty much transcended the need for last names at this point – according to one report, the named artist on their upcoming joint CD will be “The Bruce and Kelly Show.”) Despite the time constraints of a two-show night (and their willingness to talk to fans and pose for pictures between sets), the performance never seemed rushed. One hit followed another with an easy grace that belied the high-level artistry behind the music. Strumming and occasionally picking acoustic guitars, the two singers got excellent support from Geoff Queen on electric guitar and steel guitar, John “Lunchmeat” Ludwick (Bruce’s brother-in-law) on standup bass, and Joey Shuffield (of Fastball) on drums.

The show featured a mix of songs written by Bruce and Kelly, together or separately, along with some interesting covers – but no Christmas songs, Bruce noted, in a reference to the couple’s now-famous Christmas shows. There were plenty of country tearjerkers, such as Bruce’s “The New Me,” Kelly’s “If I Left You,” and “Cheater’s Game,” said to be the title track of the new CD. And there was lighter fare as well, including a nice version of Don Williams’ “We’re All the Way,” a tribute to a long-run relationship, and “Wrapped” and “Desperately,” both written by Bruce and both hits for George Strait some years back. Kelly turned Kirsty MacColl’s “Don’t Come the Cowboy with Me, Sonny Jim!” – sung at a fan’s request – into a happy romp, and the fact that she hummed her way through a few unfamiliar lyrics only added to the fun.

Bruce called for requests at one point and seemed pleased to hear calls for some of the duo’s less well-known songs. Upon learning that one group of fans had traveled from Louisiana for the show, he conferred briefly with the band and launched into his rueful road ballad “Rayne, Louisiana,” featuring some nice slide guitar by Queen. But the hits got their due as well, among others the divorce lament “Angry All the Time” and the sad and beautiful doomed-love ballad “Traveling Soldier.”

Kelly, who appears to have discovered a cure for aging, showed off her fine voice all night. There’s always been sweetness and sadness there, but she’s not afraid to throw in a little snarl too, as on her you-done-me-wrong song “What World Are You Living In?” and especially on a fine rendition of Tom T. Hall’s “Harper Valley PTA.” This is someone who knows exactly what she’s doing, and loves doing it.

“Don’t believe the hype,” the hip-hop philosophers Public Enemy once advised. In the case of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, feel free to ignore that advice.

 

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Paul Kelly’s “Greatest Hits”

Talk about your continental divide. I knew Paul Kelly’s name because some of my favorite artists, including Last Train Home, Kelly Willis and Kasey Chambers had recorded his work.
But I’ll have to admit that I was totally unprepared for the scope and quality of the music on “Songs of the South: Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits,” a 40-song reissue about to be released.
Kelly is in fact one of Australia’s most respected singer-songwriters. The “greatest hits” collection spans about 25 years of his work, serving as both a career overview and an introduction to an artist too few Americans know about.
The range is remarkable, a bit like if you had never heard Elvis Costello and were suddenly introduced to his endless permutations.
Early Paul Kelly sounds a bit like early Al Stewart and current John Wesley Harding, but it all evolves into intriguing rock, pop, country and folk.
There’s a bit lost in translation, most notably the tribute to cricket legend “Bradman,” but it’s a compelling collection overall.
From the charming “St. Kilda to King’s Cross” to the haunting “Deeper Water” and the heart-rending “How to Make Gravy,” this album makes clear just what this continent has been missing.