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Robert Earl Keen's shows are always Pavlovian parties

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Moving to Richmond from Austin, where it seems everyone has had dinner with country party balladeer Robert Earl Keen, I was curious about his saturation here, what kind of appeal he's built with Virginian audiences. At the Thursday night show at Toad's Place, I was reminded that his performances double as college reunions for Hampden-Sydney and UVa, two places Keen keeps on his touring map.

Which makes sense. I don't think he does college shows much in Texas anymore, but here in the Northern South he gets them while they're young -- college age, when many people get smashed on cheap beer for the first time and hoist their bottles while swaying with friends, screaming out the lyrics to "Copenhagen" or "Five Pound Bass." Watching the 900 people at Toad's reel and keel like they must have done back in undergraduate days, I realized Keen has accomplished a kind of Pavlovian conditioning here, and now that I think about it, back home, too: He first comes into your life when you've just started drinking and fills your mind with images of good times and parties, and that imprints. So every time he comes back around (and this is just a guess, but perhaps someday you'll read about my theory in the New England Journal of Good Times) you go right back to that period in your life, go right back to drinking PBR tall boys and hitting on your best friend's girlfriend.

But you have to have the music to back that up, and Keen certainly does. Keen's set Thursday (opened by Matt King, a one-man country band who was very brave to have opened for Keen, but also I thought was very successful at preparing the crowd for festivity) started a little slow, and I worried that he might be phoning it in a bit. He's a compulsive tourer, and I thought maybe he was a little worn from previous shows, or saving some juice for two days at New York's Fillmore this weekend, but it turns out he was just ramping up, giving the audience time to calibrate its genial debauchery.

Keen came in delicate and almost melancholy with "Feelin' Good Again," which has always had a subtle sadness to it, as of recovery from a long ailment. But plonking through some of the jam-laden tunes from his latest original release, "What I Really Mean" -- a less-Corpus Christi, more-Margaritaville selection of tunes -- he really seemed to pick it up, accompanied by one musically limber band. He played some of the stranger tunes from that album, the fairy tale "Mr. Wolf and Mama Bear" and talky "The Great Hank," which set a pretty lighthearted mood.

But he tucked back into his beer-hoisting greats, the roots-rock and blues that carry the stamp of his songwriting talent. Those classics offered another interesting observation, too: After a song is played for the 10,000th time, it necessarily evolves in the mouth of the singer. Keen's live versions of his songs remind us that they're living things, that they necessarily change to avoid staleness and to keep singers like Keen from going insane.

So the epic family reunion (and seasonally appropriate) "Merry Christmas from the Family" gets slowed way down, perhaps so the fans can chant along -- though when he wonders in the song what the family will think when "little sister brought her new boyfriend, he was a Mex-i-can," and the crowd chants that in a room with nary a Hispanic, I can't quite shake the impression that Richmonders think Mexico is an entire nation of drywallers. Keen tinkers with the pacing of "Corpus Christi Bay," such that words come out at different speeds, and I'm left yelling things like "home" and "family" and "sober" when Keen's already moved on. Such is evolution, I guess.

But it culminates with a high-velocity version of "The Road Goes on Forever," speeding through the song and getting the audience all riled up before launching into a round-robin set of solos: incredible banjoing, steel guitaring, and a huge jam by guitarist Rich Brotherton. Keen and his band seem to be cultivating a Jimmy Buffett kind of feel, very loose and easy, and I think it works well, mainly because he's better than Buffett.

But also, he can afford to experiment with styles, since we've all been so well programmed so long ago.

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