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.
"The Front Porch Song," which was co-written by Lyle Lovett, was dedicated to a couple in the audience who were attending their 85th show. Keen showed his ease with storytelling with a winding yarn that touched on the origins of the Texas A&M "Fighting Aggies" moniker and reckoned what might get you whisked away, inauspiciously, to CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He slagged Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum and others as not being the real thing when it comes to country music. The audience agreed with full hearts. And throats.
Keen introduced the first of four great cover songs, "Laughing River," as "a song by Greg Brown, America's best songwriter." He continued by saying the song was rated as the 27th best song about baseball, ever, coming in just ahead of John Fogerty's "Centerfield."
The beautiful steel guitar of "I Would Change My Life" didn't just cry, it wept.
Two other covers were lovingly performed: the slow country waltz of David Halley's "Rain Just Falls" and, as Keen announced that it would have been Townes Van Zandt's 69th birthday, a driving version of "Flying Shoes."
My vantage point gave me full view of the face of the collective audience for the whole of the show and the number of people singing along, even on the more complex and poetic numbers, was amazing -- but "Merry Christmas From the Family" and "Gringo Honeymoon" rivaled anything I've seen. It was like a badge of honor to know the words. The audience looked at each other to see who else was singing. Incredible.
The band then wrapped up with a perfect last song, "I Gotta Go," but it came back quickly for an encore, which kicked off with a rocking version of the Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie," followed by "I'm Coming Home."
The band left the stage again, but it was obvious that no one was going home before they came back to play the beloved party anthem, "The Road Goes on Forever." Hell, even I sang.
The night, from opening act to finale, was paced like a three-act play: building from the strong, solo warm-up from Andrea Davidson, through the second act of narrative songs to the rousing final act of butt-shaking, good-time party songs.
If you were at the sold-out Robert Earl Keen show in this past fall, there's a good chance you were there again on this March night. And there's a very good chance, too, that you'll be there when the fun rolls into town again.
Just like Joe Ely said. Except, again, Joe was talking about sex.