|I'm a volunteer KDHX music writer in St. Louis.|
Concert review: Robert Earl Keen (with Andrea Davidson) thrills a sold-out Off Broadway, Thursday, March 7
I often get my pre-show cocktails wrong. Mescaline, for example, was not the right choice for “West Side Story” at the Fox. Although, I must say the all-iguana Jets vs. Sharks rumble was pretty cool. But a tall beer and a whiskey back was perfect for a night with Texas songwriting raconteur Robert Earl Keen at Off Broadway on Thursday night.
While he didn’t marry Julia Roberts or front a butch Patsy Cline act like some of his contemporaries, he is mentioned in the same fine company as Townes, Nanci and Jerry Jeff when songwriting is being discussed. It was my first time seeing him but his live act is a famous mix of cowboy-bodhisattva storytelling, an oeuvre containing enough out-and-out party songs to rival Jimmy Buffett — plus a kick-ass band. Keen and his gang have been together for the best part of two decades and have been asked to record no less than six live albums. They also sold out Off Broadway just last September.
REK carries heavy mojo in the songwriting and recording industry. His last album, 2011′s “Ready for Confetti,” was produced by Nashville super producer and Dixie Chick papa, Lloyd Maines, and the list of artists that have covered Keen songs on their albums is too long to list.
Also: Keen once called the Kings of Leon “pussies” for canceling a show. Yup. I had high expectations.
A sold-out show at Off Broadway is the most sold out show you’ll likely ever see. The venue must have a very good working relationship with fire-code officials. The crowd was mixed in age, but a feeling of camaraderie permeated the room that said this probably was not the audience’s first rodeo. It felt a little like a Lone Star Dead thing.
As Joe Ely once sang, “If you’ve done it before, you’ll be doing it some more.” Joe was talking about sex though.
Andrea Davidson opened up the show and warmed the crowd with a strong, percussive solo presence. Sometimes beatboxing into an electronic delay looper and often playing harmonica to flesh out her strong guitar playing, Davidson played nine songs, singing in a rich, confident voice, and took several occasions to pump up the crowd up for REK between her songs. Davidson showed great aplomb, carrying on after breaking a string on her eighth song and getting help from backstage, in the way of another guitar, to do her final number. The audience appreciated her tenacity. Davidson also opened for Keen in September, by the way, so it just seemed like friends all around.
After a short break that seemed just long enough to take care of necessities, Keen and his band took the stage and, before playing a note, he turned to a rather famous and slightly rude picture of Johnny Cash hanging behind the bar and gave it the finger. You know the picture so, to be fair, the picture started it. To the delight of the audience, Keen yelled, “Fuck you, too, Johnny!” Then, seeming satisfied and a bit calmed by the act, he said, “I feel better about that now” and launched into the first of the 17 songs comprising the main set with three songs in two encores to follow.
Keen said early on that since they had just been at Off Broadway some few months back, they were going to try to not play all the same songs. Keen knows his crowd and the set list was masterful. It was like a slow crescendo, rising from the first song, expertly managed, mixing humor and poetry and picking along the way.
An early highlight was “Wild Wind” which Keen said he wrote on a guitar he paid way too much for. And then he said he sold the guitar with a copy of the lyrics inside. Hopefully for a lot more money still.