For all of the narrow minded “music experts” that are still struggling to understand rap music’s complexities, Robert Earl Keen offers the following weighty insight: “It’s just poetry, man.” Houston’s favorite Texan provided that little gem just before hitting the stage for his recent Rialto Theater gig.
And if it’s something that the gifted tunesmith knows about, it’s poetry, man. To prove it he treated the Southern Arizona faithful to some outstanding rhythm and rhyme at the historic venue.
Since debuting with 1984’s”No Kinda Dancer,” Keen has built a reputation as one of the most entertaining performers on the roadhouse circuit. As a singer-songwriter, the perceptive artist has made a name for himself as one of the country’s finest musical minstrels.
The Texas native’s ability to brilliantly distill lyrical lessons from life’s labors has produced 18 outstanding full-length albums, bushels of songs covered by the cream of the musical crop (including George Strait, Lyle Lovett, The Highwaymen, and the Dixie Chicks) and a 2012 induction into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame along with Lovett and the late Townes Van Zandt.
How else then for the newly minted HOF’er and his “long-suffering” band to open the show than with a rollicking rendition of “(My Home Ain’t In The) Hall of Fame”? Keen followed up the ripping opener with a double nod to his Lone Star roots with “Amarillo Highway” and “Corpus Christie.” As good as those tunes were, the approving fans had to be hoping for Keen to tunefully travel to a coupla more Texas cities.
Keen was at his songwriting best with a brilliant rendition of “Lonely Feeling” eliciting understanding nods from the appreciative crowd as he sang, “It’s your best friend from high school / Who sees you and wishes you well / You try to breakthrough / But you run out of stories tell / So you bid him goodbye and you step into space / There are so many questions that you cannot face.”
The musical bard chatted with me about the “many questions” as well as his matchless tunesmithing in an exclusive interview last year. With thirty plus years of performing and 18 albums under his belt, Keen has learned a thing or two about songwriting. But as with his unrivaled lyrical literature, the most important lesson he’s learned is a straightforward one.
“You have to trust that the songs that you are working on will come through. And you gotta keep your butt in the seat until a song comes to you. It doesn’t come to you while you’re walking down the street looking for a pizza joint or talking to your wife. So you have to have your butt in a seat and have that guitar kinda strummin’ along, and that’s how this works.”
If you twisted Keen’s arm, he’d probably describe his music as “Americana.” But if a genre exists, the talented performer is comfortable giving it a run. And nowhere was Keen’s astounding versatility more apparent at the Rialto than with the lively “Train Song.” The crowd wasn’t quite sure whether they were listening to calypso or reggae, but they were very sure that they liked it.
Keen may have been performing for over thirty years, but with a spirited version of the title tune from his latest stellar album “Ready For Confetti,” he showed the fans that he’s “still got it” – the instinctive ability to craft an exceptional tune, that is.
That masterful ability to weave lyrics and melodies has earned Keen thousands of loyal devotees over the years. And while some artists view their music as an opportunity for fans to escape, the discerning Keen writes to make people think – and therein lies the appeal for many of his loyal listeners. He spoke about those fans in our earlier interview.
“I never underestimate my audience. I don’t play down to ‘em. One of my least favorite phrases in the entire English language is ‘dumb down,’ you know? Why do we want to dumb down anything? If somebody’s in charge of something and they’re trying to dumb it down to make it easy, fire the sons of bitches, as far as I’m concerned.”
“My audience may or may not come up to that, but I hold the bar pretty high. And I’m hopin’ that this is somethin’ they’re gonna get a kick out of. ‘Cause either they want to listen to it two or three times to figure out what’s really goin’ on or this is not just an everyday song that’s comin’ at ya. This is pretty damn interesting.”
One thing’s for sure, the Rialto crowd definitely got a kick out of Keen’s swampy “Hoodoo Man,” musically transporting them to Cajun country. And then he brought ‘em right back home with the Southwestern tinged “Gringo Honeymoon,” singing “He knew a crusty caballero / Who played an old gut string guitar / And he sang like Marty Robbins could / Played like no one I’ve known / For a while we knew that life was good / And it was ours to take back home.”
Hard to say if Robert Earl Keen was playing a gut string guitar at the Rialto, but after listening to a couple of hours of outstanding music, the euphoric crowd definitely knew that life was good. And it was theirs to take back home…