05/28/2013

Old friends (and Texas music icons) will swap songs onstage in acoustic show

Old friends (and Texas music icons) will swap songs onstage in acoustic show

By Doug Pullen

Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen have been friends since their days at Texas A&M in the 1970s.

The Texas music icons once wrote "The Front Porch Song" about that period in their young lives. Lovett recorded it as "This Old Porch" for his 1986 debut album, two years after Keen cut it for his "No Kinda Dancer" album.

They've remained friends -- and a mutual admiration society -- ever since. "Since we first knew one another, he was writing great songs," Lovett says of his old friend. "Really, a lot of my style and things I learned about writing came from Lyle," Keen notes. Now they've taken that friendship on the road for eight acoustic shows in Texas and New Mexico, including one at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday the Abraham Chavez Theatre.

The two ex-Aggies don't get to spend much time together. That's where this tour, and a four-show version last February, come in. They figured it was a great way to hang out together.

"We're actually friends, Robert and I. Real friends, not just showbiz friends," Lovett said last week while driving to Austin for the first night of the May acoustic tour, which will end Thursday.

"We were always talking about how can we just get together and see one another," Lovett said. "We finally realized that's not going to happen realistically unless we did some work together."

"Lyle had mentioned to me almost every time he'd see me that we ought to do some stuff together," Keen said from his home near Kerrville. "This came available, and I said I'm ready to go at any time. That was it. It was as simple as that. It turned out to be serendipity, synchronicity or whatever you wanna call it. All the stars came into alignment."

The idea is simple. Lovett and Keen sit onstage with acoustic guitars, swap stories and play their songs. No bands. No set list. They say it went over pretty well when they tried it in February.

"They turned out to be not only successful in terms of being all sold out but very successful in how it made us both feel," Keen said. "I know I really, really enjoyed it."

When he's not touring with his Large Band or Acoustic Band, Lovett has performed in similar settings with guys like Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Guy Clark, songwriting heavyweights themselves.

"A lot of the fun of it is to let the audience take the show where it wants the show to go," Lovett said. "People ask for songs. I think it's important to be able to be flexible enough to play things to make the show about that show, as it's happening, as opposed to being scripted."

He said there are "a handful of songs people seem to want to hear," which may include his "That's Right, You're Not from Texas" and "If I Had a Boat" and Keen's "The Road Goes on Forever" and "Gringo Honeymoon." They'll have others ready "in case the audience doesn't ask for anything," Lovett said.

"We just get on stage and figure it out," Keen said. "Why change what we've been doing all this time? Also, I think it's real in the best sense of the word, the clearest sense." Lovett said they quickly developed a "back and forth" in these shows.

"I don't know what Robert is going to play. Part of what I play depends on what Robert just played," he said. "It has to work as a set of music. If he's played a couple of slow songs in a row, somebody's got to pick it up. I've got to be aware of that."

They met in College Station. Lovett, now 55, studied journalism. Keen, now 57, was an English major. "We were two pimply-faced kids in college and hung out together, as awkward and nerdy as we could be," Keen said with a laugh.

They used to sing, write songs and talk about girls, sports and music at Keen's rented house, especially his front porch, made famous in that song they wrote together.

Their careers took different trajectories. Lovett became an instant hit when his first album, "Lyle Lovett," came out in 1986. Originally considered a country artist, he has moved beyond it, incorporating elements of classical, jazz, pop, blues and gospel.

Ten of Lovett's 11 albums have gone gold, selling at least 500,000 copies. He's won four Grammy Awards and has ventured into acting, with roles in Robert Altman's "The Player" and "Short Cuts," and TV's "Mad About You." His celebrity ballooned when he married actress Julia Roberts in 1993. They divorced two years later.

Keen is more of a best-kept secret outside Texas and the South. He's the kind of writer guys like Lovett rave about in interviews. "He can sort of step outside of a subject and write all the way around it from beginning to end," Lovett said.

Keen has long been a favorite of music critics and artists. His songs have been recorded by George Strait and the Dixie Chicks. He was inducted into the Lone Star Music Hall of Fame this year.

Both Lovett and Keen were inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame last year (with the late Townes Van Zandt).

Lovett has been to El Paso several times, but he first performed here in 2008. Tuesday's show will be his second here. Keen has played El Paso several times, and last performed in the area in April, opening the Las Cruces stop of George Strait's farewell tour. He offered to play for free, figuring it might be his last chance.

"It was worth every second," Keen said. "I had to leave, but I watched an hour and 15 minutes (of Strait's set) and it was great. I was damn near crying. I was knocked out. I thought, 'Damn, this is really fantastic.' "

Keen and Lovett are free agents now that Lost Highway, for which they both recorded, has folded. Lovett said he'll cut a new album when "I've got 10 songs I like," following old advice from Guy Clark. Keen plans to record a new one this summer.For now, they're focused on this reunion tour of sorts, and the fun and memories it has conjured.

"It reminded me," Lovett said of those first shows, "of when we'd sit around in his house or on his front porch."


Make plans
Who: Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Abraham Chavez Theatre.
How much: $27.50, $35, $45, $65 at the Plaza Theatre box office, Ticketmaster outlets,
ticketmaster.com, 800-745-3000. The Abraham Chavez box office opens at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Information: 231-1100, elpasolive.com.

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