REK Glide Magazine ReviewROBERT EARL KEEN – IRVING PLAZA, NEW YORK, NY – 1/17/14
For those looking to have a good time and let loose on a Friday night, there are few better alternatives than a Robert Earl Keen concert. For over 30 years now, Keen, or REK, as he tends to be referred to by those in the know, has been offering forth a wildly combustible live show filled with consistently good songwriting, witty and arcane storytelling, and solidly crafted musicianship worthy of his status as a Texas road legend. These sturdy live performances have built a loyal and loud legion of fans that boisterously fill the venues, swigging beer, shouting out their favorite lyrics, and swaying along to the tunes arm in arm with friends and strangers alike. It’s somewhat of a society, albeit one that traffics in a diverse and varied demographic filled with roguish country outlaws, professorial literary types, pleasantly engaged couples and hopped up frat boys. They’re all here for the show, and putting on a show is something Robert Earl Keen does quite well.
Friday night’s New York City stop at the appropriately packed Irving Plaza brought much in the way of excitement for these ribald fans and even served as a suitable introduction for the uninitiated. There are three categories of Keen songs and he did well in incorporating them all into his two-hour set. He ran through the trusty “hits”; songs that the diehards know word for word but remain recognizable enough even for casual music fans, (“Corpus Christi Bay”, “Amarillo Highway”, and “Dreadful Selfish Crime”) the more obscure deep cuts that shed light on the sheer depth of Keen’s wordplay found amongst the volume of his catalog, (“Mr. Wolf and Mama Bear”, “The Great Hank”, and “Feeling Good Again”), and the bona fide “classics” known wide and far (“Merry Xmas From The Family”, and “The Road Goes On Forever”).
Augmented by his longtime touring cohorts-guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, steel guitarist Marty Muse, and drummer Tom Van Schaik-the songs take shape and sprawl out around Keen’s lyrics, offering momentous kicks when the crowd’s sing-a-long gusto calls for it (And we were dreamin’ like/The end was not in sight/And we dreamed all afternoon/We asked the world to wait/So we could celebrate/A gringo honeymoon”) and an elegant restraint for the more subdued tunes. Throughout it all, Keen serves as the hearty bandleader, strumming his acoustic guitar, stepping out to the front of the stage with mic in hand to encourage audience interaction, and generally serving as master of ceremony for his own show. He’s a skilled raconteur who artfully engages with the crowd, ensuring that each and every fan is getting his/her respective money’s worth. And, save for a few missteps (the call and response, boys vs. girls shout out during “That Buckin’ Song” can use a bit of an update, as can the stock band introductions), the show pays off.
As the house lights rose and old country tunes graced the PA speakers, most in the crowd lingered, joyously kicking the crushed and empty beer cans across the cavernous venue floors, graciously singing Keen’s praises and drunkenly plotting the evening’s next steps. Like many of Keen’s protagonists, some were going against their better judgment, letting their cautions slide and extending the night well past its’ supposed final peak, while others kissed and hugged their way into waiting cabs and subway stops, lovingly humming along to the tunes they jammed along to all night. These scenes are sure signs of success in the REK universe, and a welcome respite from the daily grind that greets most of us along the way. Soon, the band would be packing their gear, loading the bus, and heading out across the miles to bring their good vibes to a new set of listeners. The road does go on forever.
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