Lyle Lovett & Robert Earl Keen at The Woodlands, 9/11/2014Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, Robert Earl Keen Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion September 11, 2014
Between Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, it's a miracle there was any room left in the Woodlands Pavilion for paying customers Thursday. Both men's extensive roots in the Houston area were reflected in their considerable guest lists, which in turn made the lengthy evening pass a little quicker than it otherwise might have. Lovett thanked his family, 10th-grade English teacher, a Texas A&M history professor he shared with Keen, a couple of Aggie football players, and the guys at Bellaire's Cycle Shack, where he worked for a while in high school.
For Keen, his guests included a passel of fans in our section wearing backstage passes, plus the man he said inspired him to write "Merry Christmas From the Family" -- his uncle Joe, who showed up in a T-shirt sporting the phrase "I may be old, but at least I got to see all the cool bands." Doing his best not to sweat through his dark three-piece suit (he failed), the 58-year-old Sharpstown native walked out and introduced himself a few minutes after 7 p.m., pawing the opening chords of "Corpus Christi Bay" out of his acoustic guitar. There would be a lot of territory to cover before an all-in version of Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues" brought the curtain down almost four hours later.
Keen's demeanor of general bemusement didn't change much from his headlining shows, where if memory serves he's not quite so nattily dressed, so it was tough to guess what he might have been thinking, other than It's hot up here. He seemed pleased to be paying a call on the northern part of what he called the "province" of Houston, where the food doesn't come with quite as much cheese as down South, but with a band like his it would be tough to find fault with much of anything.
It might be worth exploring whether you can put a price on how much easier having his band around makes Keen's job. Probably not. Guitarist Rich Brotherton, steel player Marty Muse, bassist Bill Whitbeck (a La Porte native Keen chuckled had been given that key to that city earlier this year) have been with Keen so long, and have such an easy interplay together, that it's no wonder the front man joked about them all getting a house together.
If nothing else, they've allowed him to develop some the best band introductions anywhere, going into great detail about the cupcake buisness drummer Tom Van Scott is supposedly running out an an Airstream trailer on Austin's South Congress Avenue. (Chipotle + Copenhagen = not such a good idea, according to Keen.)
But they proved their value most by exploring every nook and cranny of Keen's 80-minute set, sinking into the jazzy contours of "Dreadful Selfish Crime" and attacking "Shades of Gray" with a full-on rockabilly gallop. After staring off in rock mode with "Corpus" and Levon Helm tribute "The Man Behind the Drums," they cruised from the laid-back swing of "Top Down" and Afropop-ish "Mr. Wolf and Mama Bear" and "Ready For Confetti" to the sentimental "Feelin' Good Again" and Todd Snider cover "Play a Train Song."
If anything, the band might have even enjoyed their time onstage a little too much, because they cut the usual extended intro to "The Road Goes On Forever" -- but not the all-cylinders climax, of course. And Keen never took off his suit jacket the entire time.
He was at least was down to a T-shirt (jacket on, though) when he appeared a few songs into his old A&M classmate's set to sing "Long Tall Texan" and "Front Porch Song," the song they wrote together about stuff that's important to a man, especially if he happens to live in Texas. Thursday the duet pulled on enough heartstrings to draw a partial standing ovation; the two old friends are obviously comfortable enough being around each other to also throw a few good-natured jabs, as when Lovett expressed how much he admired Keen's hat after "Long Tall Texan."
"Thanks...It's from Canada," Keen said. But Aggie folk singer was actually the last side of Lovett's musical personality he re-introduced Thursday. (Not sure the last time the Large Band played in the area, but it's been a while.) He'd already shown us the sincere country singer (opener "Stand By Your Man"), Western Swing enthusiast ("Cowboy Man"), Southern soul/gospel buff ("Cute As a Bug") and pop eccentric who's not afraid to get a little out there ("Penguins"). Few musicians alive would be able to tie all that together, least of all leading a 14-piece band stocked with everything from Muscle Shoals horns to L.A. session cats to guys who were with him as an Anderson Fair regular, but Lovett does so with style and class to spare.
He runs a tight ship, too -- the Large Band launched into their warmup tune a full five minutes before their announced stage time of 9 p.m. But besides Lovett's abundant, ever-polite stage talk, another thing that made his two-hour set fly by was the way the band could disappear deep inside a song like "I've Been to Memphis," stretching out its structure about as much as it could allow, and then pop right back up for a finishing flourish like it was nothing.
And personal taste aside, it's hard to derive much more pleasure from watching live music than when a big band or full orchestra is not only cooking with the stovetop dial turned all the way to the right but takes care to add a little extra flourish -- dropping in a few bars of "San Antonio Rose" into "San Antonio Girl," for example. And ever the gentlemen, Lovett donated the last 30 minutes or so of the set to allow several band members time to sing a few of their own songs. Bless fiddler Luke Bullock and guitarist Keith Sewell's hearts, though, they couldn't come close to topping Francine Reed's R&B tour de force on "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show" and "Wild Women Don't Get the Blues."
Soon enough it was getting close to 11, and we had all been there four hours plus traffic time. But Lovett sent off the congregation of friends, relatives, neighbors, ex-teachers and everyone else -- those who hadn't cried uncle and left, anyway -- with gospel hand-clapper "Church." Sly to the last, he left the refrain "time for dinner, let's go eat" lingering in the ears of an audience already full enough to unbutton their trousers.
Personal Bias: For a couple of Aggies, those two ain't bad.
The Crowd: Either retirees or people who took the day off work. Nobody could have made it home to change into casual attire and get back up to the Pavilion that quickly otherwise.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I got catfish in there as long as your arm."
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