keen observer

robert earl keenWell, here’s a Lone Star pal we didn’t expect to hear from again so soon. After all, a full decade passed between Robert Earl Keen’s final performance at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club and his debut at The Dame last June. So to have him hang his hat Saturday at the mighty Opera House, along with an additional show tonight in Covington, is a bonafide summertime treat.

Keen is a champion Texas songsmith (his contemporaries include Lyle Lovett) and a performer that can pack masterful honky tonk gusto and stark literary detail into a show.

He hasn’t released a new album in three years. Likewise, his Dame performance, which sold out weeks ahead of time, featured only one new tune (a parable about a choice and unprintable description of an old flame’s new beau) out of 20. But what an extraordinary library of songs Keen still has to rummage through for his concerts.

While there is a jovial, offbeat and often raucous dressing to his music, Keen’s narrative gift comes from stories of balance – of dark vs. light, right vs. regret and the repercussions of a single human action in a run amok world.

Such a dichotomy is addressed directly in one of Keen’s most underrated tunes, Shades of Grey (from 1997’s Picnic, the album whose cover photo depicts Keen’s car in flames at Willie Nelson’s famed 4th of July festival in Austin). The song details the “ravin’ maniacs” a Christian-raised youth falls in with during a moonshine-soaked, cattle rustling bender and how, in the end, the makeshift gang gets off a very big hook.

Taking the balance to a more surrealistic extreme is the comparatively recent The Real Hank (from 2005’s What I Really Mean). The steel-guitar savvy serenade with Jordanaires-style backing vocals mirrors two bizarre visages of Hank Williams. One has the country legend playing a Philadelphia concert in drag, the other portrays him as a barroom ghost lamenting a modern age where “country music was full of freaks.” The song then rewinds to Keen as a teen on the highway to Abilene with a “commitment-free divorcee” by his side and an 8-track tape of Williams singing Hey Good Lookin’ blasting away from the dashboard.

If nothing else, the fact the tune clocks in under five minutes is a testament to Keen’s literary economy.

Of course, Keen’s longstanding fans will claim (and, to a degree, rightfully so) that nothing beats his earlier work, from the plaintive The Front Porch Song (written with Lovett) to a hit honky tonk holiday snapshot of family dysfunction (Merry Christmas from the Family) to the neo-Zen country swing of Five Pound Bass. There are also a dozen or so other Keen diamonds, many of which are captured on the sublime 1996 concert recording  No. 2 Live Dinner.

But why quibble? See for yourself as Keen spends Saturday night in the suitably regal setting of the Opera House and offers another balancing act of songs that reflect Texas-sized country and the very surreal world that surrounds it.

North Carolina-born Americana songsmith Matt King will open both of Keen’s concerts this weekend.

Robert Earl Keen and Matt King perform:

* at 8 p.m. tonight at the Madison Theatre, 730 Madison Ave. in Covington. Tickets are $28. Call (859) 491-2444.

* at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets are $25 in advance and $27.50 day of show. Call (859) 281-6644 or (859) 233-3535.

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