Onstage, Kevin Robinson commands a room. Tall and bearded with a deep, echoing voice, he's the perfect frontman for Blue Giant, one of three bands he founded with his wife and musical partner, Anita Robinson. The country-tinged Portland four-piece is heavy on guitar and harmonica; with Kevin's lighthearted jokes and conversational banter with the crowd, he's Johnny Cash to Anita's demure, axe-wielding June Carter.
The Robinsons With Damien Jurado, Jen Wood. Sunset Tavern, 5433 Ballard Ave. N.W., 784-4880, sunsettavern.com. $10 adv./$12 DOS. 21 and over. 9:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 26.
But Kevin's not immune to a little stage fright. Though Blue Giant is starting to gain momentum, and he and Anita have found critical and commercial success with Viva Voce—their Barsuk-signed psych-rock band, which has toured with the Shins and released their fifth full-length last year—the couple's newest endeavor makes him nervous. When he and Anita return to Seattle on Friday, simply as the Robinsons, only the two of them will be onstage—playing basic chords and singing lyrics with Kevin on acoustic guitar, Anita on electric guitar and lap steel, and no backing musicians. He won't be totally alone, since the two never perform without each other, but this duo is the closest Kevin comes to playing solo.
"It's a little spooky...It's like standing onstage completely naked," he says over the phone. "You tread a fine line when you stand in front of someone and say, 'I mean exactly what I'm about to sing. And I'm gonna be honest, and you may or may not like it at all.'"
Even the set list offers an opportunity for both Robinsons to push beyond their comfort zone. They'll perform a combination of all-new material and reinvented, stripped-down Viva Voce and Blue Giant songs—some of which may be unexpected, like the fuzzed-out, drum-driven title track from Viva Voce's 2009 Rose City.
"You strip away all the stuff and get to the essentials, which really make the song stand on its own," says Anita.
Reinvention is a concept the Robinsons know all too well. The couple started their musical career 10 years ago, in Muscle Shoals, Ala., before moving to Nashville and finally Portland in 2001. They've been on four different labels, including their own, Amore!Phonics. The couple feels more comfortable the busier they are; to Anita, the idea of creating three different bands is almost instinctual: "As an artist, you should just be able to go with it, if you have an inspiration." For Kevin, having a record or a tour planned provides a cycle of work and stability: "We do our best whenever we've got a destiny."
In the past few years, though, that destiny has changed. Until 2008, the couple had written and performed only as Viva Voce. But that fall, they started writing and recording material that surprised them. "To us, it was obvious, as the songs started developing and being written, they were definitely not Viva Voce songs," Anita says.
But it was also a welcome change: They'd spent the better part of 2007 touring with the Shins, and the possibility of new music felt like a break. "I was excited about not just putting everything into one band," Anita says. "I think I'm happier and more balanced doing more than one thing."
So they embraced the change. By last fall, after the better part of a year and a couple of missteps, those twangy compositions had begun to take shape. Now the pair are inches away from finalizing a deal to release a full-length Blue Giant album this year.
Despite the shared members, Viva Voce and Blue Giant sound—both live and on record—like totally different bands in separate genres. Musically, Blue Giant is almost a country band; they jangle where Viva Voce is rhythmic. Little in Blue Giant's mellow, romantic songs, like "Target Heart," recalls Viva Voce's guitar-heavy rock. And while Anita is the frontwoman of Viva Voce, Kevin's voice is front and center in Blue Giant. The band's style will complement Seattle own's Fruit Bats, whom Blue Giant will support on a national tour beginning in March.
The musical duo are quick to point out that although Viva Voce came first, neither Blue Giant nor the Robinsons classify as "side projects." "Anytime someone says the word 'project,' it makes me take them about 50 percent less seriously," Kevin says. They consider all three "full-on bands" that represent the couple's different musical motivations. Anita can picture one album coming out from each band in alternating years, followed by a tour. It's just enough to keep them busy and satisfied.
"I don't really feel like we have a choice," Anita says. "You have to make the music inside that's trying to get out."