Robert Earl Keen: Lincoln Theatre-Raleigh, NC 3/28/10

A long weekend of music came to a close Sunday night where I found myself back at the Lincoln Theatre for a show by Robert Earl Keen.  After witnessing both a blazing Friday night set by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and a perfectly mesmerizing three-hour masterpiece by Wilco on Saturday night, I wasn’t sure I could muster the enthusiasm for the rowdy revelry that normally accompanies a Keen show.  Well, ol’ REK must have felt my concerns, because at 9:15 sharp he walked out on stage and announced that he would be trying something a little different tonight: A “night of song”, which translated into a chronological journey through most of his albums, sort of like the Storytellers episodes that used to air on MTV back when they actually played music.  

The premise involved Keen choosing two or three songs from an album and introducing them with banter, jokes, explanations, etc.  This provided a laid-back, and to borrow from Keen’s background, “front porch” kind of vibe that proved to be the perfect remedy for my end of weekend state of mind.  Starting with 1989’s West Textures and ending with 2009’s The Rose Hotel, Keen played over 20 of his songs, choosing overlooked and obscure cuts over long-time fan favorites.  Instead of “Corpus Christi Bay” or “Amarillo Highway” off of A Bigger Piece of the Sky we were treated to “Paint the Town Beige”.  When Keen got to the Gringo Honeymoon album, he traded “Dreadful Selfish Crime” and “Merry Christmas From The Family” for “The Raven and the Coyote” and “Barbeque”.  These decisions by Keen weeded out some of the casual fans, who took to talking and heading for the bar, but enraptured the die-hards, who danced, raised their arms to the stage and sang along with every word.  The sentiment brought big smiles to Keen’s face, as he regaled the crowd with insider stories of life on the road, songwriting tricks, and interactions with fellow musicians, such as the time he helped relapse E-Street band bassist Garry Tallent back to cigarettes or potentially ruined Margo Timmons’ career by forcing her to sing a duet on the Picnic track “Then Came Lo Mein”.  Taking it all in and providing the soundtrack were Keen’s longtime bandmates, guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitback, pedal steel player Marty Muse, and drummer Tom Van Schaik, all of whom featured prominently in Keen’s anecdotes and praises.   

However, a Robert Earl Keen show just wouldn’t be complete without a few standards.  As the band ambled offstage, the crowd started the obligatory “Robert Earl Keen!” chants and a few moments later, he and the band re-appeared for the encore.  Adding more humor to the festivities, Keen rightly proclaimed “Here comes the part where all of you who came to see the hits can have fun!”  On cue, they played a few more, finishing with two classics: “Gringo Honeymoon” and “The Road Goes on Forever”.  Thus, a familiar ending to a unique night with a Texas legend.  

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