Robert Earl Keen found new shapes in Texas country at New Orleans Jazz Fest

"What could be better than good food, good drink and good weather?" Robert Earl Keen asked early in his set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest on Sunday afternoon. Had Keen mentioned good music, he would have covered the primary topics that attract so many people to his performances.

Dressed in a light blue suit, a bright green tie and a cowboy hat, Keen looked the part of the elder statesmen Texas songwriter he's nearly become. In the nearly 30 years he's been churning out bittersweet songs that are rarely as lighthearted as they sound, Keen has cultivated perhaps the most devoted -- if not the largest -- fanbase of any in his close-knit tribe of Lone Star State singers.

Those fans made their presence known at the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage on Sunday (May 4), and Keen gave them what he so reliably delivers: an amiable charisma, and something substantive to go with his fans' favorite substances.

He and his four-piece band opened by turning "Corpus Christi Bay," originally recorded as a gently plucked tale of self-destruction and partial redemption, into a raunchy barroom blues number. If songs such as "Throwin' Rocks," "Feelin' Good Again" and "Amarillo Highway" aren't exactly radio staples, they resonated like timeless hits when Keen played them for fans who know every word.

Earlier on Jazz Fest's second weekend, Alejandro Escovedo and Keen's childhood friend Lyle Lovett offered distinctly different versions of the Texas songwriting tradition Keen reveres. On Sunday, Keen's band stretched the canvas of that sound.

"Ready for Confetti" road a rhythm that bordered on calypso. "Shades of Grey" provided a showcase for guitarist Rich Brotherton -- Keen called him "Austin's premiere guitar player," with some justification -- and pedal steel guy Marty Muse. The band gave the Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie" something the Dead never could: a real Southern drawl and the tight orchestration of musicians who rehearse.

Keen's singing voice sounds like a train whistle emanating from a Pentecostal preacher. It's a fine instrument for putting flesh on the characters he conjures with his lyrics. The crowd joined him for the immortal opening lines -- "Sherry was a waitress at the only joint in town/She had a reputation as a girl who'd been around" -- of "The Road Goes on Forever," Keen's tragicomic signature. The story ended several minutes before the song did, as the band stretched it out, finding new shapes in music they've played countless times before.

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