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Keen Life

Anyone who's been to a Robert Earl Keen show might have heard him tell the story of his 1974 Fourth of July. Exhausted from the heat and the tequila, Keen took a little afternoon nap while at Willie Nelson's annual picnic. He awoke to pillars of smoke and an announcement from the stage that there were a few cars on fire in the parking lot. Keen vividly recalls the voice over the loudspeaker as it began identifying the burning vehicles: "The first winner is ... RHP-997." His car.

Check out the cover of Keen's upcoming CD, Picnic, and there it is -- a picture of two cars ablaze. The one on the right bears license plate RHP-997. The photo isn't the first time Keen has drawn from his own lore. The Houston-born singer financed his first record by pawning a shotgun, taking out a loan against a car and asking everyone he knew if they could front him $100. The record got made, the creditors repaid and a decade later part of the story made it into song -- sort of. "Dreadful Selfish Crime," the closing track on 1994's Gringo Honeymoon, has Keen singing about a fledgling band trying to put together a neighborhood gig: "Hocked my old shotgun and bought a used P.A."

All artists borrow from their lives, but as a onetime post-adolescent underachiever, Keen is particularly aware that the gap between the haves and have-nots is not all that wide. Instead of trying to be clever by placing a redneck twist on a cliche or a phrase (i.e., a "thinking problem"), Keen makes the rednecks his characters and puts them in desperate situations. The resulting appeal runs deeper than what a catchy melody and a sappy lyric served up by a Nashville beauty can deliver. The songs are partially the real romanticism of living fast and hard and partially the fear of having to endure the consequences of living that life.

For Picnic, his seventh release, Keen makes the jump from indie Sugar Hill Records to the major label offshoot of Arista Austin. Those familiar with the cowboy who's too cool for big country might be surprised to find that Keen has made something closer to an edgy rock and roll record than a serene, folksy strum-along. Yet the touching and authentic emotion of, say, a "Jennifer Johnson and Me" hasn't been abandoned; instead, its incarnations on this go-round, "I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight" or "Oh Rosie," get adorned with richer arrangements and production. Picnic also has Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies filling out a few of the songs with backing vocals and dueting with Keen. The partnership was the result of Timmins's seeking out Keen to let him know what a big fan of his she was. Timmins not only ended up on the CD, but also helped get Keen hooked up with John Keane, who has worked with the Junkies as well as the likes of R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls, to produce the record.

Keen may be on a major label now, and his record may have slicker production and big-name collaborations, but his stories are still littered with the marginalized and the on-the-brink, and his love songs are still more sorrow than sweetness. Most important, though, his latest output is still unmistakably Texan. Keen couldn't do it any other way.

-- Michael Bertin

Robert Earl Keen performs at 7 and 10 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, and Thursday, April 17, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $17.50 and $27.50. Todd Snider opens. For info, call 869-TICS.

Richmond Fontaine -- Richmond Fontaine's publicist has dubbed her client "Oregon's alterna-country, No Depression kinda band." I couldn't have nailed it better myself. This clinically self-absorbed bunch bashes out their effortless fusion of C&W twang, roots-rock power chords and punk volatility as if the stations in their hometown had been playing Buck Owens and Willie Nelson alongside X and the Blasters since the dawn of radio. Leader Willy Vlautin is a stickler for the dreariest details, his defeated warble evoking trailerloads of crippled despair. Lock Vlautin in a room with Son Volt's equally downbeat leader, Jay Farrar, and I'd be willing to bet the latter would be the one cracking the jokes. And out-seriousing a No Depression spokesmodel is not a feat reserved for just any mopey schmuck. At Emo's Alternative Lounge, 2700 Albany, Thursday, April 10. Doors open at 7 p.m. Free, 21 and older; $5 cover, 1820. Sasquatch 2000 opens. 523-8503. (Hobart Rowland)

Slash's Blues Ball -- It looks like former Guns 'N Roses fret ace Slash has found himself a nasty blues band to play with -- sort of. You may have already surmised that Slash isn't interested in debating the merits of purism; the brand of blues he's peddling begins and ends with the James Gang, Deep Purple and, perhaps on a bad night, Grand Funk Railroad. Blues, hard rock, heavy metal: It's all the same in the Blues Ball world. So if you don't mind stowing your opinions about what constitutes an authentic rendering of the form, this show ought to be, umm, liberating. Slash couldn't have picked a more unlikely place to host his little bash: If it's intimacy he's after, he'll have it at Area 51, a tiny crawlspace of a dive. I'd bring a helmet. At Area 51, 5959 Richmond Avenue, Friday, April 11. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. 629-3700. (

 
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