At the risk of repeating ourselves, Houston’s live-music fans are faced with a stupefying number of options between now and Sunday. One of the most familiar, and yet mysterious, is Robert Earl Keen’s two shows at the Heights Theater Friday and Saturday. Keen, 61, is a certifiable star in the fields of Americana and Texas music, one who happens to have grown up here. Billed as “Robert Earl Keen and Friends: A Super Weekend of Football and Music” (whew!), the shows represent a coup for the venue, which has only been open since late November and is roughly one-third the size of the room Keen usually plays in Houston, House of Blues.
So who might those “friends” be? Keen is one of the most admired musicians in his field, and as can be expected of an artist who has been making records for more than 30 years, he has crossed paths with an awful lot of musicians who are great in their own right. Hell, his most recent album, November’s Live Dinner Reunion, features guests Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Cody Canada, Cory Morrow, Bruce Robison and Reckless Kelly’s Cody Braun returning to John T. Floores Country Store in Helotes to revisit Keen's 1996 classic No. 2 Live Dinner. Suddenly we’ve got a pretty interesting guessing game on our hands. Some people bet on Super Bowl squares, others lay odds on who’s going to show up to sing with the man who wrote “The Road Goes On Forever” and “Gringo Honeymoon”; to each his own.
One final note: The following picks have been made blindfolded, so to speak — there has been no prior consultation with anyone at the venue or any of Keen’s team about who might show up Friday and Saturday, but we did cross-check for schedule conflicts. In other words, each artist's website lists Friday and Saturday as open unless noted otherwise. If we hadn’t, Todd Snider would be on here too.
Might as well start with the man everyone will be expecting to show up anyway. Keen’s name is linked with his onetime Texas A&M classmate and frequent touring companion so often they might as well be an old standup comedy team. It’s a shame they haven’t co-written more songs, but we’ll always have “This Old Porch.”
Though separated by nearly a decade in age, Ely and Keen will be forever linked by “The Road Goes On Forever,” which Keen wrote but Ely made a centerpiece of his live show for many years; the song still regularly appears in his set lists. Ely, who celebrates his 69th birthday next week, will also be close by: He’s playing Tomball’s Main Street Crossing Friday night.
Coming off his own Heights Theater performance last month, the Lubbock-born razor-witted renaissance man has long been one of Keen’s heroes. “Of the people that I really and truly admire, Terry would be No. 1, both as an artist and a human being,” Keen recently told the Houston Chronicle’s Andrew Dansby.
Now enjoying a career resurgence brought on by the artistic freedom of last year’s Midnight Motel, Woodlands native Ingram has never been apologetic about his admiration for Keen. In fact, he admitted to the Austin Chronicle’s Andy Langer in 2005 — eight years after the two singer-songwriters split an Austin City Limits episode — he might have even freaked the latter out a bit early on. Handing Keen his first CD did not go over well, Ingram recalled.
He hated me because I handed him the first record I ever made. It was the only impression of me he ever made. He said to himself, 'This shit sucks and people are comparing him to me.' I don't begrudge him that. I understand that feeling now.
Admittedly, this pick stems mostly out of convenience rather than any special connection between Graves and Keen, but it could be fun anyway. Graves, a.k.a. Alejandro Rose-Garcia, will be in Houston to play Super Bowl LIVE Friday with Leon Bridges and Robert Ellis, and is arguably the most acclaimed young Texas singer-songwriter of the decade. Although his aesthetic is more expressionistic than Keen’s narrative style, a few songs from Graves's 2014 breakthrough, And the War Came, like “Dearly Departed” or "Hard Wired," beckon toward common ground.
Something of a long shot. Rowan, a former member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and one of the genre’s leading musicians for a half-century, lives in Marin County, California; he’s also 74 years old. That didn’t stop him from appearing on Keen’s 2015 album Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, singing a track, “99 Years and One Dark Day,” that also showed up in the Live Dinner Reunion set list. If Keen and the venue are looking to really throw the audience a curveball, this would be one way to do it.
BRUCE ROBISON & KELLY WILLIS
Although both have upcoming Houston dates booked — Willis brings her “Sweetheart Tour” to the Mucky Duck on Valentine’s Day, and Robison will be part of House of Blues’ “Unleashed Live” night February 18 with brother Charlie and Ingram — the “First Couple of Texas Country” is listed (separately) under the “Friends” section of Keen’s website. Who wouldn’t want to see the three of them trade songs for a while?
The Chicks are conspicuously absent from the array of high-profile Texas talent assembling in Houston around the Super Bowl, but if conditions are ripe for a surprise cameo anywhere this weekend, it's got to be at Keen's bash. He has a long association with Natalie Maines's father, Lloyd, who played on and produced No. 2 Live Dinner. The steel-guitar great went on to produce several more of Keen's albums, including Happy Prisoner, which features Natalie duetting on the old gospel standard "Wayfaring Stranger." If the Chicks can't make it, maybe at least Lloyd might, perhaps with longtime performing partner Terri Hendrix; if they can, maybe they'll even bring Patty Griffin along too.
Robert Earl Keen and his friends perform Friday and Saturday, February 3 and 4, at the Heights Theater, 339 West 19th. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $75-125.