Tuesday, September 25

Sing-along exaltation

I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and most everyone there knows of Robert Earl Keen. His albums — all fourteen of them — mix traditional country, rock 'n' roll, blues and his own flavor, but it's his concerts that keep the fans faithful.

Robert Earl plays tomorrow night at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins. It'll be my fifth REK concert in about the same number of years, which is peanuts up to my younger brother's 20+. Here's a little piece I wrote on Keen:

Robert Earl Keen is nothing short of a legend in his home state of Texas. Combining a Jimmy Buffett-like knack for storytelling, an unconventional voice and near-constant touring through the South and other select spots, Keen has solidified his place in Texas-county history.
Buffett may have his Parrotheads, and although there’s no official Keen mascot, his fans are just as rabidly loyal. Maybe that’s because he’s never abandoned his Texas roots for the allure of Nashville. Or maybe it’s because Keen’s unpretentious demeanor immediately puts a crowd at ease. A Keen concert isn’t an exercise in observing a star. It’s sitting around with an old friend, sipping a beer and singing.

And sing they do. Keen’s folksy-country song sets vary from venue to venue — sometimes starting slowly and building to a frenzied, sing-along crescendo, other times bursting out strong with a fast-paced, guitar-plucker — but a handful of mainstays always make the list, and the Keen crowd knows every word. In fact, at January’s concert at the Grizzly Rose in Denver, two twenty-somethings were heckled out of the front row for not cheering loud enough and for not knowing the lyrics — a crime in Keenville.

While Texas may have discovered him, the gospel of Keen is spreading, and the man Rolling Stone called a “nice-guy poet” now boasts two nights in New York City and a handful of dates in other highfalutin places on his on-the-road-roster. His regular gigs in Colorado — winters shows in Steamboat Springs and at the Grizzy Rose in Denver — now include a show at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins.

Backed by some of the same band members for more than a decade — including guitarist/producer Rich Brotherton, from Augusta, Georgia (home of the Metro Spirit, where I began my alt-weekly career); Tom Van Schaik, a previous drummer for the Dixie Chicks; and steel guitar player Marty Muse — Keen’s tunes, like Buffett’s, tell stories, many of them based on real-life events, with a Texas twist. “The Front Porch Song,” inspired by Keen’s time at Texas A&M University, where he would frequently jam on his front porch with neighbor Lyle Lovett, waxes poetic about guacamole salad. “Gringo Honeymoon” spins a rolling tale of a newlywed couple resisting the end of their vacation in Mexico. On another Keen-concert regular, “Merry Christmas From the Family,” Keen croons about buying a box of tampons at the Stop-and-Go because it’s the only place open. “Corpus Christie Bay” explains how it’s downright impossible to stay sober while living in a costal Texas town.

Keen began writing poetry at an early age, and he learned the guitar in college. He writes primarily alone, and little is known about his private life. His songs are rarely heard on the radio, yet he seems to have struck a balance that few others have attained — enough success to pay the bills (I assume), enough obscurity to lead what appears to be a normal life on his Texas ranch.

At times, Keen’s scraggly beard matches his grown-out graying locks. Other times, he’s clean-cut with a button-down shirt tucked into pressed khakis. No matter the dress, Keen’s fans will show up in droves, crack open a Shiner Bock and sing for awhile.

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