Show Review: Robert Earl Keen Delivered High Calibre Show at Showplace Theatre

Robert Earl Keen came through and played a fun show at the Riverwind Casino Showplace Theatre this past Saturday. It was like seeing that old friend you haven’t seen in years, and trying to remember exactly why you haven’t seen them in so long. Back in Houston, it was pretty routine that if Keen was in town, you made every effort to see him. At least that’s how it was for me. I first saw a young Keen opening for a dual headlining bill featuring Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark at the recently torn down Heights fixture, Fitzgerald’s. The young Keen was promoting his new (at the time) album, “West Textures”. To say he held his own among songwriting legends that night would be an understatement. I  became a fan that night, particularly on the strength of his ability to write songs that dug deep. Songs like  “Mariano”, “Jennifer Johnson & Me”, “Love’s A Word I Never Throw Around” and the now Americana standard, “The Road Goes On Forever”. But Keen was also a clever songwriter with a sense of humor  that would show up in songs like “The Five Pound bass”, “It’s The Little Things” and “Swervin’ In My Lane” (off the earlier “No Kinda Dancer.”). With “West Textures” his career began to hit the fast lane, and Keen followed it up with my favorite album of his, “A Bigger Piece Of Sky”, then “Gringo Honeymoon”. His shows became higher profile, and his audiences grew, drawing a wide variety of cowboys, hippies, rednecks and fratboys. His shows and audiences were at times a raucous party atmosphere, that really seemed to appeal to the fratboys in particular. Now I remember. That particular element became so prevalent and disruptive to what I saw as ‘the sanctity of the songs’, I simply stopped going to his shows around the time of his album “Gravitational Forces”.

So fast forward some 18 years, and I sat myself down in the wonderful Showplace Theatre wondering what might be in store for the evening. I’ve still followed Keen over the years via his album releases, and always really enjoyed them. In particular, I really enjoyed his return to a bluegrass vibe on 2015’s “Happy Prisoner”. Surveying the crowd, still with some trepidation, I was pleased that the audience seemed like the kind of audience that was there for the music, rather than a party. The cowboys, hippies and rednecks were still accounted for, and if there were any fratboys in attendance, they’d managed to mature, at least for the most part. The occasionally hollered “Robert Eaaaaarl!!!” still manages to occupy any quiet moment between songs, though now it seemed more humorous than disruptive.  Certainly, the songs still resonate. Opening with the trio of “What I Really Mean”, “Feelin’ Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon” Keen convinced me that I’d stayed away far too long. The remainder of the first half of the set focused on more recent gems like “Ride” and “99 Years For One Dark Day”.

At nearly the halfway point, Keen unleashed a pair of classics with “The Five Pound Bass” and “Copenhagen” enticing audience participation. One of my personal highlight of the evening was the splendid  “Man Behind The Drums” and the accompanying tale of the song’s inspiration, Levon Helm.

The musicians playing with Keen are high caliber indeed. Joined by Tom Van Schaik on drums, rancher Brian Beken on guitar and fiddle, the steady Bill Whitbeck on bass, Marty Muse on pedal and lap steel as well as dobro. Lastly, the fabulous Kym Warner (The Greencards) displayed his mandolin mastery throughout the night. Whether standard mandolin, or an electric variety, Warner really impressed on each and every song. I’m even convinced he added a “China Cat Sunflower” (Grateful Dead) lick throughout “Dreadful Selfish Crime.” Through it all, Keen played guitar like his life depended on it, and constantly flashed that charming REK smile. He hasn’t lost it one bit.

Always a personal favorite of mine, “Corpus Christi Bay” struck a nerve tonight that way a good song will do.  A song that addresses the often separate paths life takes friends or family, it proved to really sum up the evening for me, and seemed to capitalize directly to my nearly two decade long absence.  The evening wound down with a stunning “I Gotta Go,” followed by the obvious sing-along “The Road Goes On Forever” set closer. Keen and band returned for an encore duo of “Amarillo Highway” and “Levelland” before hitting the literal highway once more that thankfully does seem to go on forever. Already looking forward to the annual Christmas run that Keen presents each year.

Article and Photo credit: David Nowels

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