CoMusic Review: Robert Earl Keen Hints at the New, Hammers Home the Old

Robert Earl Keen is a hard man to label, which might explain his loyal cult following and success outside of the traditional commercial music formula. He draws a diverse crowd with his equally varied and seemingly never ending catalog of songs, and Wednesday night at The Blue Note was no exception.

Keen gets lumped in with the “Alt-Country” crowd, but he is definitely more towards the Country end of the spectrum. He has a storyteller-inflected sensibility along the lines of Kris Kristofferson or Steve Earle, aided by his time as a newsman in Austin, TX.

Keen kicked off the night with some of his newer cuts like the title track of 2009’s The Rose Hotel, a laid back western swing song that eased the band into his 20-plus-song set. He quickly mixed in some classics like the work hard, play hard tale Corpus Christi Bay.

Robert Earl Keen kept the crowd at the Blue Note wanting more on Wednesday.

One of the highlights a few songs into the set was a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Flying Shoes complete with some impressive pedal steel guitar work from band member Marty Muse. No Texas songwriter’s night feels complete without paying homage to Van Zandt.

Midway through the set, Keen shed the band and entertained the crowd with a few acoustic tunes. Merry Christmas from the Family turned into a booze-filled crowd sing along about a notably awkward family Christmas.

Really, just about everyone can relate to these lyrics: “Carve the Turkey/ Turn the ball game on/ It’s margaritas when the eggnog’s gone/ Send somebody to the Quickpak Store/ We need some ice and an extension chord.”

Keen brought his band back on for the last part of the set and eventually kicked it up a few notches. Crowd favorites Feelin’ Good Again and Gringo Honeymoon brought an appropriate close to the initial part of his set.

His two encores were definitely the best part of the night and left everyone ready for a return visit. Keen’s Road Goes on Forever was set at a blazing tempo by Tom Van Schaik’s adept drumming, and for his second encore, he closed out the night with an in-the-pocket, yet intense, version of the Rolling Stone’s classic You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

Robert Earl Keen’s show on Wednesday ended with the crowd craving more, but for now they will have to settle for listening to his songs while driving the back roads of Boone County. One thing was evident: those at The Blue Note Wednesday were left hoping that the road and the party really do never end.

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