Last Night: Robert Earl Keen At House Of Blues

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Robert Earl Keen House of Blues December 28, 2011

It sucks when your college roommate is more successful than you. Heaven knows Rocks Off was pleased as punch to hear ours had ended up blowing merchant marines for salvia in Vladivostok (just kidding, Steve!), but Robert Earl Keen's old front porch pal from Texas A&M has always been the critical darling. Maybe it's bad form to bring Lyle Lovett up in an REK review, but the two are inextricably entwined in Texas music history. Both have brought it upon themselves, invoking each other in early songs and making it annoyingly difficult to make the argument that nothing of musical quality ever came out of College Station.

But while Lovett was an early darling of pre-Garth Brooks Nashville, Keen has been a songwriter's songwriter for decades, covered by everyone from Willie to George Strait. His influence, often ignored, is undeniable.

Admittedly, this might have something to do with the kind of crowds his shows attract. Keen continues to enjoy huge popularity within the Lone Star State. Lyle may have played the Kennedy Center, but no one is that sea of black-tied amiability were howling along to "If I Had a Boat." Keen's audiences are rowdy and fiercely loyal, testimony to both the man's enduring appeal and his skill at storytelling, both of which were on display last night at the House of Blues.

The night started with a brief hiccup, as REK's official website shows his set starting at 10:30. When Rocks Off arrived in what we thought was plenty of time to enjoy a few pre-show beers, we found the will call window closed and the strains of "Love's a Word I Never Throw Around" (from 1989's West Textures, speaking of college era material). So apologies for the snafu. If it makes you feel any better, Rocks Off ended up missing "Gringo Honeymoon," one of the first songs we learned to play on guitar.

Predictably, the House of Blues was packed. The crowd was taking advantage of slow post-Christmas work weeks to get their booze on, and Rocks Off (and Mrs. Rocks Off) were lurched into and trod upon by some of Cinco Ranch's finest amateur drunks. Like any REK show, however, the mood was jubilant. Keen, a liittle heavier but still in fine voice and spirits at 55, whooped the crowd up early on with "Feelin' Good Again," "Gringo Honeymoon," and what's probably our personal favorite REK tune, "Corpus Christi Bay."

If you focused only on REK's biggest cuts ("The Road Goes On Forever," "Merry Christmas From the Family"), you might be tempted to write his songwriting off. As LL Cool J said in Deep Blue Sea, this is a mistake. Besides the very human characterizations found in songs like "Bay," there's also one of the finest (only?) songs written about the Oklahoma City bombing, "Shades of Gray," which managed to [temporarily] quiet the boisterous crowd mid-set.

Of course, he also played "That Buckin' Song." It's all a rich tapestry.

And did I say "fine voice?" It's true, the man is still capable of sustaining his notes, but you'd have a hard time finding anyone who'd describe Keen's voice as "fine." Distinctive because of its...nasality (we always wanted him to tour with Michael Stipe as "The Deviated Septums"), critics have been divided on its appeal. We've always felt it fits his music perfectly, adequately ranging from heartfelt croon ("Love's a Word") to singalong ("Comin' Home").

His backing lineup has been pretty stable for the last decade (or longer, in the case of lead guitarist Rich Brotherton). Former Dixie Chicks' drummer/cupcake vendor Tom Van Schaik, Bill Whitbeck (bass) and Marty Muse (steel guitar), who we always want to call "Marty Moose," a la National Lampoon's Vacation, except he'd probably kick our ass, were as professional as ever, and made the most of jam opportunities offered by "The Road Goes on Forever" and "Corpus Christi Bay."

There's a comfort food quality to a REK show. Fans know they'll get their favorites even as Keen deftly sprinkles his set with newer material (last night featured five songs from 2011's Ready for Confetti, our favorites are the introspective "Paint the Town Beige - a reimagining of the track from A Bigger Piece of Sky - and the slow burn "I Gotta Go"). As the lights came on around 11:00, the crowd left (most even under their own power), secure in the knowledge that the party wouldn't end tonight, at least.

Personal Bias: Rocks Off was a latecomer to REK, but Picnic and Walking Distance are personal favorites.

The Crowd: A&M (and probably Blinn College) class of 1994.

Overheard In The Crowd: "He looks like Willy Loman."

Random Notebook Dump: "Odds on woman next to me puking: 3-2"


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