Live Review of REK at Duling Hall from No Depression!

Robert Earl Keen comes to us in a bus, from a show in Georgia. He walks onstage a few minutes after 8 o’clock wearing a black coat over black pants. The coat’s a little wrinkled in the back, the tie is multi-colored. He’s wearing a hat that’s something less than a cowboy hat, but more than a fedora. Keen looks around as he’s getting ready to play and shows us that grin, signaling that he’s letting all of us come along for the ride, that he might even let us sing along like we were the Tabernacle Choir. He’s done it before in that town, he’ll do it again in another town; but tonight he’s in our town.

Here’s the thing about this little show at Duling Hall in Jackson, Mississippi, on a Sunday night in late March: Robert Earl Keen and his band did not phone it in, not even one little bit. They could have, easily enough. This crowd would have been happy to shout “I ain’t never goin’ back!” during "Gringo Honeymoon," sing along with “The Road Goes On Forever,” and gone home happy. Keen and the band have a week to get to Indiana, and you’d guess they’re heading back to Texas first. That’s a long bus ride. The place was full, at $35 a head, and they could have cashed that little check, filled the bus up with diesel, and been on the road in a couple of hours. But they came to play, and play they did.

What makes it work for someone like Robert Earl Keen? How does he keep the same band together for decades, play those same songs, mix in a few new ones, but deliver the lines we’re all looking for -- the lines we know -- as if he was just making them up on the spot? Outside of Jimmy Buffett, there’s no one else who does it quite the way he does it. Buffett went corporate years ago, but there’s not one thing corporate about Robert Earl Keen, the Texas Troubadour who’s nobody’s whore; a singer who gives us his songs and takes them back just long enough to sing them to us, pausing occasionally to let us shout a line or two, and all the while, there’s that grin. That shit-eatin’ grin.

The Jackson show opened with “Feelin’ Good Again,” a song that sums up what it must be like to emerge from the blackness of depression only to realize that life is actually good, better than you hoped. The action in the song plays out in a bar that’s the Texas version of Cheers. And, as he sang that song Sunday night, folks in Duling Hall were like, well, here’s dessert right at the beginning of the meal. Where do we go from here? There’s only one place you can go from there, and it’s across the Rio Grande, then into that little town on rented donkeys. “Gringo Honeymoon” it is, and that’s exactly what it was -- a honeymoon for all of us, and Captain Robert Earl was our guide.

Read the full review at No Depression!