LIVE REVIEW: Robert Earl Keen serves up a dish of bluegrass in Saxapahaw

SAXAPAHAW — Robert Earl Keen Jr. and his band performed a sold-out show at the Haw River Ballroom on Tuesday night.

Ruston Kelly, the opening act, performed a half dozen songs he’s written. Self-proclaimed as “not a country singer,” he went on to croon about love for Maggie and Music City, aka Nashville, Tenn., and his hometown. He’s been writing for BMG and has sold music to Tim McGraw.

A singer-songwriter just like Keen, he’s spunky and has a great sound. After this tour, he will be releasing an album.

Keen and his band came to the stage decked out in three-piece suits and hats reminiscent of an old bluegrass band. The band, made up of Rich Brotherton on guitar, Bill Whitbeck on bass and backup vocals, Marty Muse on steel guitar and Tom Van Schaik on drums, were joined by two new faces Kym Warner of The Greencards on mandolin and Brian Bacon on fiddle.

The show opened with a few fan favorites, “Feelin’ Good Again” and “I’m Coming Home,” that had the crowd singing along, then switched off to some of the tracks from the new album “Happy Prisoner — The Bluegrass Sessions.” The crowd seemed a little quiet at first, but by the middle of the first song “99 Years for One Dark Day,” there was a lot of toe-tapping and place-dancing going on.

“Happy Prisoner” is a leap from Keen’s typical story-rich Americana faire. His love of bluegrass led the band to release a bluegrass album this past February. It’s a cross-section of songs across all varieties of the genre. Performing it to fans Tuesday night with such great reception proves it was a leap of faith that has certainly paid off for Keen.

The show went on with more original Keen tunes, including “Not A Drop of Rain,” “The Five Pound Bass” and “I’ve Gotta Go,” closing out with his signature favorite “The Road Goes On Forever” and “The Party Never Ends.” Leaving the stage, the crowd went wild chanting Keen’s name again and again, and the singer obliged with two more songs. The first was a collaboration between Warner and Bacon, and the closing song was “The Front Porch Song” written with friend Lyle Lovett.

I’ve seen Keen in concert quite a few times in different venues. This one started a bit stiff, but once the crowd responded to the new bluegrass music, they came alive. This show had a more mature audience than others I’ve attended. Most shows have a median age around 35 where this crowd was more toward the upper 40s. I’m not sure if the new bluegrass made the difference or the day and venue, but I’m pleased to see Keen’s music being liked by a wider variety of people.

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