Midway through Bruce & Kelly’s Holiday Shindig at the Paramount Theatre Saturday night, co-host Bruce Robison had to pause and wish himself a merry Christmas. “Holy smokes!”, he added, marveling at having just accompanied his hero Rodney Crowell on the 1988 country smash “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried.”
Crowell was a fine fit for this 16th annual event in which Robison and his wife, Kelly Willis, mix holiday tunes with some of their own classic material. Taking the stage seven songs into the show, Crowell delivered moving solo versions of more recent gems “Anything But Tame” and “God I’m Missing You” before Robison and Willis’ extended band joined behind him.
Crowell got in on the holiday-music act too, hinting that he might have an album of Christmas songs ready by this time next year as he introduced a new number called “Christmas Makes Me Lonely Without You.” Lest his four-song cameo seem all too brief, Crowell returned during the encore for a sterling rendition of his 1995 tear-jerker “Please Remember Me” and the rousing-show closer “Run Run Rudolph,” smartly plucked from Chuck Berry’s sleigh bag.
But mostly the fans return every year for the warm and friendly spirit that Robison and Willis bring to the stage. They strike perfect husband-wife harmonies when they team up on favorites both seasonal (“Baby It’s Cold Outside”) and perennial (Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio”). And each shines brightly when they’re in the spotlight on their own: Willis’ voice drifted like pure falling snow atop the strings-and-piano backing of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and Robison spread smiles throughout the theater with his poignant signature tune “My Brother and Me.”
Ultimately it’s the little homespun touches that define the couple’s music and performance. Near the end of the night, Willis sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” while alternately hilarious and charming clips of the couple’s four children played on a video screen behind them. Some of the old footage proved especially relevant this particular holiday season, as the kids battled with light sabers beneath the Zilker tree.
Not that the night was overly sentimental, though. When Willis introduced an older song by mentioning that she’d be playing Jan. 20 at the Cactus Cafe with her early-career backing band Radio Ranch, featuring her ex-husband Mas Palermo on drums, Robison didn’t miss a beat: “Next year at the holiday show, you could be here with Mas!”
For the second year in a row, the show was recorded for television, with plans for the results to be aired next year during the holidays. (Photo access was limited as a result of the filming.)