Robert Earl Keen’s melancholy but raucous farewell at the Birchmere
Partying can be such sweet sorrow. Robert Earl Keen’s Friday show at the Birchmere, on a tour designed to let the Texas troubadour say farewell to fans and vice versa, was full of melancholy raucousness.
Keen announced earlier this year that he would stop performing for good after this summer, and the flock that packed the club for the first of two sold-out nights seemed very conscious that the hourglass is running out of sand. Keen, 66, has said health is not a factor in his decision to give up the road; he just had an epiphany during yet another overnight tour bus ride that he didn’t want to die far from home and alone.
Yet Keen seemed frailer than normal on this night. He took a seat at the center of the stage and stayed there, a departure from the stand-and-deliver format of his previous tours. And before he sang a note, Keen gave a long and nostalgic monologue on how hard he had to work as a young artist, back when he was best known for being Lyle Lovett’s college roommate, just to get to a slot as an opening act at the Birchmere, and how much it still means to play the exalted concert hall.
Given the heavy prologue, one couldn’t help but look for deeper meaning in the lyrics. Keen sometimes made it easy. He turned his opening song, “What I Really Mean,” a sweet ballad from 2005 that was originally a love letter to folks back home whom he missed while on the road, into a thank-you to folks who filled the club to say goodbye, changing its last line, “Wish you were here,” to, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Then again, words have always mattered at Keen’s shows, where it sometimes seems as if every fan not only knows every lyric, but also wants everybody to know that they know every lyric, and to prove it by outshouting the next guy. The decibel competition was predictably fierce on “Gringo Honeymoon,” “Corpus Christi Bay” and “Merry Christmas From the Family.”
“Amarillo Highway,” an anthem written by fellow Texan and singing storyteller Terry Allen, was delivered over a ZZ Top-like boogie beat. “Dreadful Selfish Crime” had even Keen banging his head and dancing in his chair. “Shades of Gray,” one of Keen’s many up-tempo crime tunes, came complete with a shredding solo from guitarist Brian Beken. Keen seemed amused by the ferocity of the arrangement. “Turn that crap down, son!” he joked to Beken, the youngest member of his backing trio. (Beken signed on with Keen in 2015. The rhythm section of drummer Tom Van Schaik and bassist Bill Whitbeck has been with Keen since the 1990s.) But nobody really wanted the din diminished.
The glorious noise peaked on “The Road Goes On Forever,” Keen’s best-known story song, as he got to its climactic line, “The road goes on forever and the party never ends.” That song closes as Sonny, its anti-hero protagonist, gets arrested for murder and is condemned to death. In the real world, Keen has sentenced himself only to rest and relaxation. But as Keen ambled back to the dressing room and the lights came up, there was an overwhelming sense that nothing really goes on forever and that something wonderful was ending. Keen, like everybody else in the room, is going to miss this.