It wasn't as momentous as Prince's first shows there earlier this year, but Bruce Robison did present what was likely another first for the Dakota Jazz Club on Sunday night.
"Is it OK if I play a trucking song here?" the long, tall Texan asked the crowd, as if his rowdy new chug-chugging anthem "Born to Roll" would upset the ghosts of jazz gigs past. He also relayed a comment from someone who saw the beer koozies on sale at the merch stand: "You guys are from the South, aren't you?"
The Texas honky-tonk vet and his Virginia-bred, alt-twang-branding wife, Kelly Willis, may have been a little out of place at the regal downtown Minneapolis jazz joint, but the Dakota's intimate listening-room qualities played to their strengths. In his case, it allowed for every nuance and twist in his poetic story-songs to be heard. For her, the warm acoustics added a golden sheen to her wonderful warble of a voice.
Performing side-by-side all night with a pedal-steel player and stand-up bassist on their first real tour together -- after 17 years of marriage -- Austin's favorite musical couple pulled heavily from their respective '90s albums while proudly digging deep into their first duo album, "Cheater's Game," issued in February. Highlights from the new album included the show’s playful opener, “9,999,999 Tears,” and the pre-encore finale “Lifeline,” both of which showed off how well the duo work together as duet partners. Probably the best of the batch was more an individual showpiece for Robison, the Kristofferson-inspired “Leavin’,” another twangy heartbreak classic from one of the modern kings of the genre.
We already knew how well Willis could sing back-up to Robison’s songs, as she does on his albums. Great proof came during Sunday’s nearly two-hour set in “Wrapped,” “The Good Life” and “My Brother & Me” (the latter of which resonated especially well with the crowd; the line about how hard the old German folk can be might've helped). Turns out, Robison is pretty good at singing harmony to her tunes, too, which he did in “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” “Heaven Bound” and the Gary Louris co-write “What I Deserve.” He pretty much let her handle the encore finale by herself, though: Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A.," which she delivered with a wink (and perfection, too).
Noting that they have quite a wide array of albums between them, Willis asked for requests near the end of the show. “Angry All the Time” was pretty clearly the popular choice. Having just played “Travelin’ Soldier,” though, they held off on another bowl-you-over downer and played a spirited “Don’t Want to Love You (but I Do)” instead. When they did get to “Angry,” it served as a reminder of how well known Robison’s work is locally, even though – unlike Willis -- he hasn’t performed here in a decade-plus (partial credit goes to Tim McGraw, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, et al., for recording his songs). Here’s hoping this isn’t just a honeymoon period for the new tour partners, but rather a long-term commitment.