Kelly Willis, BR5-49 and Robert Earl Keen
Mam Kin, Boston, July 29, 1996
By Joel Bernstein
BOSTON - This was one of the finest bills of its type to ever appear in Boston, normally a Country-Free Zone.
Unfortunately, an overly-ambitious $20 ticket price helped to keep the crowd down to about 100 people on a beautiful Friday night.
The show was opened by unadvertised and unnecessary Keith Urban's Four Wheel Drive. This new Warner Bros act from Australia played generic country-rock loudly enough to give Deep Purple a headache. Amidst the cacaphony, some of the countrier numbers seemed to have possible commercial potential.
But then there was ther version of "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" with snatches of the BTO-hit "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" and "Stairway To Heaven" mixed in. Why this band appeared on a show billed as "The Edge of Country" (based on a Sunday night show on Boston country radio station WKLB, which sponsored the show) was a puzzle.
Nashville's much ballyhooed BR5-49 was making their first Boston appearance. Instrumentally, they included a standup bass (the one instrument essential to a true retro sound), two guitars, drums and alternating steel/fiddle. The steel/fiddle player was attired in Jr. Samples bib-overalls. The others wore outfits that may have intended to evoke Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, but looked more like a fashionably-dressed Western movie gunslinger and spoke in affectedly yokel voices.
Fortunately the between songs "comedy patter" that destroyed their recent live EP was kept to a minimum. A full-length release is due at the end of September.
Musically BR5-49's set included enjoyable renditions of mostly '40's and '50's songs (several Bob Wills songs, "Cherokee Boogie" by Moon Mullican and "Are You Teasing Me?" a song written by the Louvins and a hit for Carl Smith), as well as their own semi-hit "Me 'N' Opie."
But the band's packaging should offend any real fans of traditional country. They reinforce the industry notion that this type of music can only be palatable when presented as a joke, a novelty and a thing to be snickered at.
Next up was the new Kelly Willis, definitely not to be confused with the old Kelly Willis. She may look and sound about the same, but her band, her repertoire, and her musical direction have been completely overhauled.
About to go into the studio to record tracks for her debut A&M album (now scheduled for early 1997), Willis devoted most of the set to potential album cuts, playing only one song ("Take It All Out on You") from her three MCA albums.
The edgy, mostly slow to mid-tempo material included the songs she recorded with Son Volt (available on an EP sold only at her shows) and "Truck Stop Girl" from the forthcoming "Rig Rock Deluxe" compilation. More telling of her new musical direction was the inclusion of songs recorded by T-Bone Burnett, Gene Clark, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson and NRBQ. One new original - "What World Are You Living In?"- was one of the few tracks with the countrier flavor of her early work. While some in the audience seemed surprised by Willis' new repertoire, everyone appeared to enjoy it. Robert Earl Keen had the dubious honor of headlining this show, and one of America's best-kept secrets had little chance to make new fans. By the time Keen and his band took the stage at 1:10 A.M., they were greeted by about a third of the original small audience.
Keen seemed none too thrilled with the situation, saying "We're going to bring in bagels so everyone can have breakfast" and turning that into a running routine.
Keen is an artist best appreciated in an acoustic, intimate setting. He is a brilliantly funny raconteur, a skill hardly demonstrated on this night (probably due in large part to the need to abbreviate his set). His clever lyrics are also easier to understand in a quieter setting. Still, Keen has a solid band behind him, and his voice - eccentric but powerful and twangy - is enjoyable even when you're not quite sure what it's saying. His material emphasized more recent gems like "The Road Goes On Forever" (made famous by Joe Ely) and "Gringo Honeymoon" as well as songs by Terry Allen and Dave Alvin.
It would have been better for all concerned had Keith Urban been given the closing slot instead.