Jon Dee Graham & friend Kelly Willis; March 21, 2010; Continental Club Gallery, Austin
Last year I stayed in Austin until the Monday after SXSW since the flights home were much, much cheaper that day. I’d heard about Alejandro’s Sunday night shindig at the Continental Club and the lines that formed for it hours in advance, but I opted for the brand new weekly gig premiering that night in the Gallery upstairs. Christened Jon Dee Graham & Friend, it was extended to the plural that night due to the host of friends in town who wanted to be part of that first show. Since then he’s had an impressive line-up of musicians from Austin and across the country join him. This year I purposely booked my return flight for Monday because I knew I didn’t want to miss it, and I didn’t even know who the guest was yet.
Jackpot! Kelly Willis, one of the very few female singers I like, was going to be his guest. Willis always seems so sweet from her gentle smile to her gorgeous voice, but I’ve heard her call Robbie Fulks an asshole, and I know there’s genuine sass behind those innocent blue eyes. Knowing what I know now about Willis and Jon Dee’s past, I expected her to be even sharper tonight. Jon Dee had already let me in on a secret that I’d promised not to tell- since Chuck Prophet was going to be playing downstairs on Al’s bill they had arranged for him to come take Jon Dee’s place yet again after Willis mock-fires him from his own show. Problem was, she almost blew the surprise a few times by bringing up the past, but Jon Dee stopped her each time, “we’ll talk about that a little later.”
Jon Dee played “My Lucky Day,” one of my favorite tracks from the excellent It’s Not as Bad as It Looks, which was officially released earlier this year. Kelly answered with the title track to “What I Deserve,” which happens to be what I would have requested since it’s the only record of hers I own, and honestly I haven’t listened to it in ages. They went on trading tunes, Willis admitting that yes, even though she had fired him, she made every future guitar player learn his solos exactly the way he had played them. Willis didn’t seem exactly prepared, she often struggled to come up with a song to play, and then struggled with the words, but who can blame her, she spends most of her time these days caring for the four children that she and fellow musician Bruce Robison have.
Two of them are twins and Jon Dee had perhaps the funniest line when he asked if they ever creep her out. “I don’t know,” he shook his head, “ever since The Shining, twins just scare the hell out of me.” When the time came for Willis to “fire” him, it didn’t come off as genuine, but Prophet was ready to slide into Jon Dee’s seat. After a tune or two, Willis implored him to play one of his songs, but he demurred, "I've played a lot this week, I'd rather hear you play.” I’d been working up the nerve all night to ask Prophet to play a house concert, but couldn’t do it. Instead, at the end of the night, I gave my card to Jon Dee, asking him to pass it on to Chuck. As the biggest fan of the House of Righteous Music, not to mention its most frequent performer, he’s probably the one to talk him into it anyway. Especially since he’s forgotten, or at least forgiven, the time I went to see Prophet instead of him.