Cartographers and geologists will tell you that Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, who for 30 years has roused generations of fans with his "the road goes on forever / and the party never ends" refrain, is patently wrong. The concept of Earth-bound travel, they say, is in fact finite.
Well, as of 9:55 p.m. Sunday night, inside the Knickerbocker Music Center in Westerly, there were no scientists or skeptics in sight. Instead, as a houseful of happy fans bellowed lustily along with Keen through his set-ending anthem, Sherry the waitress was still driving a brand-new Benz and martyred bad-boy Sonny was still on Death Row.
Same as it ever was. Same as it will ever be.
But wait! Seeing Keen and his magnificent band — in the Knick's close quarters with fine sightlines and excellent acoustics — became one of those slowly revelatory experiences. Over 100 minutes and 20 songs, it occurred to me, and probably many of the longtime acolytes in the room, that this never-ending Keensian road is a subjective exercise in time travel.
On Sunday, as the set rolled by, I found myself remembering other Keen shows and specific songs and the people I was with and why so much of this resonates so strongly all these years later. It's not just because I have great friends and loved ones with whom I shared these experiences; it's also because the imagery and poetry and narrative storylines of Keen's amazing tunes just effortlessly become part of a mental scrapbook. You can't make that stuff happen. Either the artist is that good or not.
I couldn't help but relive these and many more moments at The Knick — even as new images and memories were being created. That's what Keen and his band bring, night after night, song after indelible song.
Keen, as always, was the affable host. Wearing white pants and a tails-out print shirt, and working a beard and long-hair look that actually worked, he prefaced many tunes with autobiographical anecdotes — the sort that make you want to beg him to write memoirs. And, for a guy who describes his own distinctive baritone as "something people can grow to enjoy, like artichokes," Keen was in fine voice as he painted his melodic pictures with a knowing smile on his face as he gazed out across the room.
The set list (below) was a skilled and thoughtful mixture of new and old, required faves and deeper gems — and was presented with passion, dynamics and chops by that incredible band: drummer Tom Van Schaik, bassist Bill Whitbeck, multi-instrumentalist Marty Muse, guitarist Rich Brotherton, mandolinist Kym Warner and fiddler Brian Beken.
If there were any complaints, it's Keen's own fault: he has so many wonderful tunes that, inevitably, a few personal favorites are presumably left out of each fan's dream set list. In that spirit, two fine mid-show covers, Todd Snider's "Train Song" and Dave Alvin's "4th of July," were empathetic choices — but the selfish among us could only speculate what Keen songs might've worked there.
Ditto for a finely delivered two-song encore of Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" and, as sung superbly by Whitbeck, "Like a Rolling Stone." Well, if nothing else, my inclination to compare/contrast Dylan's immortal work against Keen's served an assuredly unintended purpose: career-wise, I stand firm suggesting Keen is every bit Dylan's artistic equal.
Set list: "I Wish You Were Here," "Feelin' Good Again," "Gringo Honeymoon," "Ride," "Shades of Gray," "Paint the Town Beige," "A Border Tragedy," "Merry Christmas from the Family," "I Got to Go," "The Rose Hotel," "Broken End of Love," "The Man Behind the Drums," "4th of July," "Play a Train Song," "Waves on the Ocean," "Corpus Christi Bay," "The Road Goes On and On," "The Road Goes On Forever." Encores: "Tangled Up in Blue," "Like a Rolling Stone."