A Keen eye on partying at the Carolina

by Amy Kingsley

Ever since the ancient Greeks, man has found ways to personify and sometimes even deify the acts of celebration and inebriation. Nowhere in my experience has the worship of such frivolity as the Bacchanalians practiced passed in such undiluted form as in the brushy stretch of countryside between the rival flagship institutions of higher education in the state of Texas.

Robert Earl Keen, an alumnus of Texas A&M University who currently resides near the University of Texas campus, emerged as a natural bard for animal houses all over the region in the 1980s. In the twenty year span of his career those original fans may have aged and dispersed, but they have not given up their fondness for revelry. Or the sauce ‘– if the fans enjoying Keen’s March 10 appearance at the Carolina Theater can be sampled as representative of the rest.

Keen is touring in support of a new album titled What I Really Need. He takes the stage on a Friday night with a handful of accomplished musicians in a black western shirt lacquered shoulder to sternum in silver sequins. Although his hair is a stately shade of gray, his mug is as rosy and youthful as the one that graced his debut 11 albums ago.

The crowd warms up with a tune called ‘“Feelin’ Good Again.’” The ditty’s as light as whipped frosting and Keen’s voice and high-on-the-neck guitar strumming are nothing to write home about.

His aesthetic is much more frat bar than Folsom Prison, and without the glam afforded his fancy shirt, the singer and band might look wholly out of place in the fancy environs of the Carolina Theater. But Keen’s got enough aw-shucks charm and easy smiles to ingratiate himself in more hostile environments than Greensboro.

Indeed, the nearly sold-out house is testament not only to the fact that some folks don’t care about college basketball, but also to the Keen stock’s dependable appreciation, one that’s more blue chip than juggernaut. The crowd in attendance tonight includes kids of college age and those who could reasonably be their parents.

The second song is ‘“Corpus Christi Bay,’” a paean to drinking on the beach. It’s a crowd pleaser and a timeless one. It summarizes the Keen vision: Why tackle the issues of the day when you can hit one out of the ballpark just rhapsodizing on leisure?

Keen’s music is billed as a hybrid of country, folk, bluegrass and rock. But a simpler comparison would draw the parallel between Keen and Jimmy Buffet. The two share a certain artistic vision, although Keen is dependably subtler.

That is until he starts in on a tune called ‘“The Five Pound.’” The five pounds in question belong to a bass the vacationing Keen has set out to capture. The lights, in trying to match the drama of the big fish tale, cycle through a rainbow backdrop that does not quite do the battle justice.

‘“This is a song I wrote with my friend Lyle Lovett on the porch of my house just behind the Dixie Chicken,’” Keen says.

Keen and Lovett both earned their stripes in the College Station music scene as undergraduates at Texas A&M. And while Lovett, with his anguished and weathered face, went on to conquer critics’ hearts, Keen capitalized on his unpretentious country mien to capture the half-wasted audience simply searching for a sing along.

Throughout the evening, Keen mentions not only Lovett but also Reba McIntyre, whom he credits with the idea behind his gaudy wardrobe. His references never sound like name dropping, and the smile he sported at the top of the show rarely leaves his lips.

Near the end of the evening, after Keen excuses his band for a couple of solo numbers then brings them back for an electrified set, a couple from the rows in front of me returns to their seats double fisting beers. They each wrap one arm around the other’s waist and raise the bottles twined in their outside hands in a four beer toast. The men wear the belted khakis and polo shirts of the formerly fraternal.

All over the auditorium, beers are rising in a boozy salute to the not-quite-anthem ‘“The Road Goes on Forever (And the Party Never Ends)’”. Keen and company depart the stage momentarily, only to be beckoned back by an enthusiastic if slightly slurred four syllable chant Robert Earl Keen Robert Earl Keen.

They play a couple more, and then try to leave again. The crowd chants again, this time truncating his first name to one syllable.

This time when the band emerges, they bypass the microphones with their acoustic instruments and try to quiet the masses. When the yelling subsides, they launch into the loveliest song of the night, ‘“I’m Comin’ Home,’” without the aid of any amplification.

It’s enough to lull the raucous crowd to sleep. Or, at least the guy behind me. He’s passed out in his chair with a beer in one hand.

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