ATLANTA -- They came under the guise of The Good, The Bad and The
But, actually, there's nothing bad or ugly about them.
Kelly Willis, Richard Buckner and Bruce Robison passed through Atlanta on
Thursday night in all their musical splendor, bringing in a somewhat
awkward conglomeration of talent but a powerful mix of styles and sounds.
As was to be expected, the show at Smith's Olde Bar followed a rather
unconventional format, with each performer taking a turn to play one of
their tunes and then passing the baton. The trio followed this pattern
through two 90-minute sets.
Willis, dressed in a red, silk shirt and black pants, her blond hair pulled
back in a ponytail, was seated at center stage behind an acoustic guitar
and flanked by Buckner and Robison. On Buckner's right was Eric Heywood
(ex-Son Volt), who added flourishes of soaring pedal-steel guitar to many
of Buckner's tunes but sat quietly through most of Willis' and Robison's
Willis and Robison, who had collaborated before on albums and onstage,
often added an extra guitar or backing harmonies to each other's songs. But
with the exception of a cover by Texas singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale
late in the evening, there was no interaction at all with Buckner, who sat
next to Willis and Robison while they played.
"It seems like Kelly and Bruce don't even know Richard," Leslie Kingsley, a
25-year-old school counselor from Atlanta, observed earlier in the night.
just sit there while he plays."
Buckner looked slightly sleepy in jeans and a blue, short-sleeved flannel
shirt as he hunched over the microphone. He seemed to squeeze out the
words, squinting every so often as he looked out on the hushed crowd.
Silence seems important for Buckner. His songs -- which drip with details
of heartaches, depression, loneliness and leaving -- demand a quiet,
attentive audience. And, for the most part, he got it.
"The meat is in the silences," Buckner says. "It's like a breath -- a
moment to let what just happened saturate -- and it's very important. It's
part of the magic of the music, and if you can't pull it off, then there's
no point to it."
But he pulled it off. As he attacked songs such as "Lil Wallet Picture" and
"A Goodbye Rye," Buckner immersed himself in them, letting each word rumble
out of the depths of his chest then holding onto it until the last possible
moment before letting it slip away.
The tune "4am," from last year's Devotion + Doubt, came out
folksier, but menacingly slow, while the ominous blues of "Boys, The Night
Will Bury You" creaked along like a death march.
Alt-country veteran Willis opened the show with the twangy "What World are
You Livin' In," an early tune of hers. Her voice warbled gracefully,
digging up images of Emmylou Harris, as she accompanied herself on acoustic
guitar. Buckner followed her with an aching rendition of "Lucky Buzz,"
from his new album, Since.
Robison then picked up the baton and strummed through one of his tunes,
Austin, Texas, troubadour Robison's songs rarely strayed from their folk
roots, but they benefited greatly from Willis' vocal contributions. Her
harmonies gave more depth to songs such as "My Brother and Me," from this
Willis plied her selections with old songs, new songs and a couple of
covers. She also gave the audience a taste of her upcoming album, her
fifth, What I Deserve (February), with a spirited version of the
Her shining moment, however, came on the deathly quiet "Without You." With
Robison accompanying her on the acoustic guitar, her voice boomed
confidently through the pitch-dark room as the audience watched, wide-eyed
For most of the audience, the night's highlight was unquestionably
Buckner's a cappella "On Travelling." With the stage lit weakly in
hazy red light, Buckner put his electric guitar to the floor and bellowed
the song like a desperate
As he finished, he was bathed in applause and calls for him to play another
right away. But he did not oblige, not right away at least. There was a
lull toward the end of the set and Willis inched her chair toward the
"We've been trying to work this one out so it looks like we like each other,"
she told the audience, glancing at Buckner and Robison as she introduced a
cover of Lauderdale's "I Know Better Now."
The audience broke its night-long reverential silence to laugh at Willis'
joke, but it was Buckner's response that seemed to sum up the night best.
"Whatever," he said, dismissing Willis' semi-earnest introduction with a husky
laugh, as the three launched into the Lauderdale staple.
It was the first and only time they'd actually played together in the
three-hour show. But not everyone was satisfied with what they heard.
"I wish they could've just all played alone," Gina Thomason, 31, said as
the lights went up. "Especially Buckner."