Robert Earl Keen (with Andrea Davidson) raises a Texas-sized ruckus at Off Broadway, Tuesday, March 4Beckoning steel guitars and a sharp-dressed Robert Earl Keen -- with humorous stories and warm, Texas-sized grin in tow -- turned a sold-out Off Broadway into a late-winter, backyard barbecue on Tuesday night.
Mr. Keen commenced the evening by appearing on stage to greet the packed audience and offer a warm-hearted introduction to his opening act, Andrea Davidson. A singer-songwriter from Kentucky, Davidson delivered a solo, eight-song set. An electric guitar was plugged in towards the end of her act, but most songs were played on her acoustic guitar accompanied by a drum machine which added percussion or other rhythmic supplements, which at times drowned out her pleasant voice.
Davidson offered the audience a first-time performance of her new song, "Inappropriate Ways," gracefully played on guitar. Half of her songs were delivered while sitting on the stage, which was probably intended to be an intimate experience with the audience; the drawback, however, was that those audience members near the back of the room could not see her, which might have detracted from the overall listening experience. She invited crowd participation when she covered the Lumineers' hit, "Ho Hey." The familiar tune had the audience clapping to the beat and filling the room with "Ho Hey" chants that added a fun element to her mostly calm and low-key set.
Finally, Robert Earl Keen and his band -- Marty Muse (steel guitar), Bill Whitbeck (guitars), Rich Brotherton (guitars) and Tom Van Schaik (drums) -- took the stage. Keen was well dressed for the occasion: white button-up shirt, purple tie, gold vest, brown suit coat, blue jeans and a brown cowboy hit which he lifted both in greeting and in gratitude. He prepped the crowd with a "we're not going to do what we've been doing the last 20 years or so. We're going to be different and be a little off." He did not fully explain the comment, but it wasn't necessary: what they didn't do was play every song from their most recent record. They did perform a selection of songs from several albums, including the widely popular Christmas song, "Merry Christmas From the Family." The off-season tune lit up the crowd and had nearly everyone happily singing along about a drunken, dysfunctional holiday season with the help of seasoned mix of acoustic, electric and steel guitars.
Keen create an atmosphere that made everyone feel like his close friends. He shared anecdotes about how, where and when his songs were written. He inserted jokes or applied funny one-liners while conversing with the crowd between songs. His magnetic personality shapes his music with his descriptive story-telling, comedic taste and ability for hitting a raw painful nerve as well. For example, Tuesday night's set included, "Lonely Feeling," a slow song about the pain and isolation in loneliness. The song ended in a lengthy instrumental (which could have gone on for hours if the crowd could vote) that captured the emotions expressed in the words and seemed to affect and possibly entrance the entire crowd.
Most of Keen's show was fun and light hearted: people raised their beers to the chorus of "Feeling Good Again," the drum beat sounded like footsteps or a horse walking during "I Gotta Go" and fans dances to favorites such as "Corpus Christi Bay" and "Gringo Honeymoon."
Keen's main set was nearly 20 songs in length, and concluded with the legendary, "The Road Goes on Forever," which sent the crowd into an enthusiastic roar of recognition. The ending of the song played out for four minutes; the band jammed with heavy drums and a sweet electric guitar solo that echoed Jimi Hendrix.
That led to the encore break and fans calling Keen back out for more. The singer returned alone, finally shedding the suit coat, and he continued with songs such as "Mariano" and "The Front Porch Song" to conclude a fun and relaxed evening.
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