Robert Earl Keen is the kind of songwriter who knows a few things about providing a wintry cast to Texas-style Americana music. Some of his best writing, in fact, downplays the Lone Star dance hall drive that has come to define his popularity as a live act in favor of subtle, chilled intimacy.
One would think a return Lexington concert by the famed Texas songsmith last night at the Lyric Theatre in the midst of a particularly nasty winter stretch – one, in fact, that caused Keen to joke that he had “traded his tour bus in for a bobsled” – would be the ideal occasion to utilize such icy intimacy.
No chance. Last night, Keen brushed aside, for the most part, suggestions of the warm and fuzzy in favor of full fledge Texas bonfire. Utilizing a four-member touring band that has been his back-up for over two decades (the concert, contrary to initial advertisements, was not a solo show), Keen went heavy on the Lone Star roadhouse reveries that reflected the more electric side of his artistic persona (Five Pound Bass, Amarillo Highway and the set closing renegade anthem The Road Goes on Forever) as well the more askew cantina/honky tonk reflections that highlighted the narrative mischief in his writing (I Gotta Go, Merry Christmas from the Family and the especially twisted, waltz-infused romp A Border Tragedy).
It was all as fun as could be with Keen sounding effortlessly involved with songs he has been singing for decades while pedal steel/lap steel/dobro player Marty Muse and guitarist Rich Brotherton offered regal bordertown orchestration through their soloing and sparring.
The sold out crowd ate it all up too, especially when old favorites like Corpus Christi Bay and I’m Comin’ Home were amped up to meet the ceremonial spirit that dominated the 90 minute performance.
But the few times Keen stepped out of party mode and into that neglected, darker intimacy, an entire other dimension of his music and performance profile emergence. Leading the pack was a discreetly solemn reading of Bears by Steven Fromholz, the champion Texas songwriter who died in a hunting accident earlier this week. Another was a sweetly nostalgic revisit to The Front Porch Song and an accompanying story that underscored Keen’s longstanding friendship with fellow Texas scribe Lyle Lovett, who co-penned the song.
The highlight, though, was a finale cover of The Old Home Place, a preview from an upcoming Keen album of bluegrass standards. The singer and his band played it at the front of the stage without amplification, forcing the honky tonk attitude (and behavior) of the crowd into a state of attentive concert hall quiet.