December 29, 2011
House of Blues - Dallas
Dallas, TX USA
Review by Karlyn Suggs
Photos by Scott Witty
Robert Earl Keen, Jr.
When my editor asked if I wanted to review Robert Earl Keen in concert just after Christmas, I jumped at the chance. I had heard some of his sets with fellow singer / songwriter Todd Snider, and liked that cross section of music they created often referred to as Americana. It's neither country or rock, or alt-country or rockabilly. It's just music to play sitting around a fire, picking and grinning, or as we used to call it, swappin' lies.
I had been listening to the Robert Earl's latest offering, Ready 4 Confetti, for a couple of weeks prior to the House of Blues performance. The Lost Highway disc, Earl's 16th, (and by the way, they were all available for sale at the merchandise booth) is a collection of songs that cover all sorts of topics. There's a satirical response to his best selling song, lost loves and even an old hymn that I remember singing in church as a little girl. Days before the concert, I found myself looking over the group's official discussion board where loyalists congregate to talk about shows they've seen, one's they plan to attend, his new album, set lists, just about anything related to Robert Earl. There was even a section on the site devoted to fan videos related to his most famous song, The Road Goes on Forever, and stories about how this song had affected people. Needless to say, there was a lot of built-in anticipation for my first live Robert Earl Keen Band performance. The wait was well worth it.
This was no ordinary crowd that paid good money to see Robert Earl & Company. No, this audience knew exactly who they had come to see and why. This Texas troubadour had literally written the soundtracks to their lives through song, and paying their respects was the least they could do. This group gathered may not have been rabid fans like those that follow Phish, Widespread Panic or Jimmy Buffett, but they were indeed passionate about their man. They knew the words to his songs, sang them loud and proud, cheered throughout the night, and literally held back nothing. They loved Robert Earl, and he definitely showed his appreciation back.
Opening with "Feelin' Good Again", the choice seemed apropos for what would follow during the course of his 18-song set this night. Keen followed that tune with "Gringo Honeymoon" and "Merry Christmas from the Family". As I looked around at the faces of the standing room only crowd, the one thing I kept on noticing where the smiles. They were everywhere. Even the soundman, Charles Ray, was be-bopping along as he worked the board. iPhones were aplenty as fans recorded their hero on stage.
Robert Earl Keen is quite funny. He spoke to the crowd throughout the evening recalling personal anecdotes that had everyone laughing. Keen's dry humor, baritone voice and most importantly his onstage demeanor, often reminded me of another Texas musical icon, Jerry Jeff Walker. Their mannerisms were that similar. And trust me, that wasn't a bad thing either. It was like walking into a bar and being surprised to learn you were getting a two-for-one drink special for as long as the music played on.
Keen has surrounded himself with a stellar cast of musicians. All were given the opportunity to showcase their talents. Guitarist Rich Brotherton has been with Robert Earl almost 20 years. He played a variety of stringed instruments including a mandolin and banjo. Bill Whitbeck has been handling bass duties with the band since 1995. Marty Muse, on steel guitar, has been a regular going back some eleven years, and then there is drummer Ton Van Schaik. He was formerly part of the rhythm section for another Texas sensation, the Dixie Chicks, before he flew the coup to join REK in 1997.
When you have 16 albums worth of material to draw from, it's going to be almost impossible to please everyone with your song selections. The cuts from the new album were quite good. I had kind of hoped Robert Earl would include "Black Baldy Stallion," with its haunting guitar work, and the old church hymn, "Soul of Man." Unfortunately they were omitted. Regardless, the 90-minute performance left everyone in the audience satisfied. There was a nice balance between the old Robert Earl Keen and the new RFK that left no one with anything to complain about.
Texas is a land filled with storytelling guitar players. Tonight I witnessed one of the finest the Lone Star state had to offer. If you missed this performance because you were out of town for the holidays, or just plain stuck entertaining family and couldn't get away, you're in luck. Robert Earl and his band will be at Billy Bob's Texas in Ft. Worth Feb. 24. It should be one hootin' and hollerin' time at this world famous honky tonk.
Feelin' Good Again
Merry Christmas from the Family
I Gotta Go
Love's a Word I Never Throw Away
Mr. Wolf and Mama Bear
Who Do Man
Corpus Christie Bay
Shades of Gray
Ready 4 Confetti
Road Goes On and On
Road Goes On Forever
(Tribute to Bobby Goldsboro)
Merry Christmas from the Family (second time)