A little bit of Texas in the Carolina Theatre

by Ryan Snyder

One of the Lone Star State’s favorite sons made a stop in Greensboro recently and thankfully, I’m not talking about Ron “Tater Salad” White. More fortuitously, acclaimed singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen gave one of his typical performances to an enthusiastic crowd at the Carolina Theatre last Thursday. And by typical, I’m saying it was spirited, funny and absorbing, because those words can be used to describe any of his shows. You could argue that this reputation that has earned him something more than a casual following.

Many artists possess fan bases that could be considered loyal, vigilant and pragmatic in the appreciation of their beloved musician. REK fans do it, but seem to do it with a little more gusto than most. Check out the traffic on his website’s discussion forums and you will quickly come to understand what I mean. It’s not just a loose-knit group of fans that share a common interest. It’s a living, breathing organism all unto itself with a common goal of sharing in and the music of their icon and bringing new fans into the fold. Spend a few minutes cruising the boards and you’ll come across folks who may have been complete strangers at one time, but have forged lifelong friendships through their shared passion. Fans meet for dinner before shows, talk everything from politics to barbecue online, even fish or play golf together in their free time. Keen knows that he has a good thing going on and his appreciation shows. He routinely posts free live music on his site for visitors to indulge the live itch that might strike when there are no local dates to be found. He even posted a recent live performance from Marfa, Texas in its entirety. “All you gotta do is log on and push the button,” Keen told the Carolina Theatre audience. “It’s easier than getting a DUI.” But that much was for after the show — and I mean the download, not the DUI. But there was an actual live performance going on and as I referenced earlier, REK never disappoints. Even though the Carolina Theatre maintains reserved seating for most of it’s events, the orchestra pit was open for all comers to move and shake as they so pleased. It seemed like everyone close to the stage sported some sort of Keen paraphernalia, with one even tossing a red, long-sleeved T-shirt onstage in hopes of getting an autograph. “Hey, I used to have a shop rag that looked just like that,” Keen remarked. The set was composed of a healthy mix of older and newer material, liveshow staples and a few well-placed cover songs. The show opened with “Whenever Kindness Fails,” a classic composition from Keen’s expansive cowboy-themed repertoire. Most of his songs are sliceof-life on the range narratives that resonate with the everyman persona buried somewhere in all people. He’s one of few country-western musicians to stand the test of time playing songs that could be considered of the throwback country vein. You won’t often find him in videos on CMT, but his music is certainly thematically reflective of the genre’s greats. He paid homage to one of those greats, who is also a contemporary, with his cover of Steve Earle’s “Tom Ames’ Prayer.” It’s one of Keen’s favorite covers and the opening chords instantly drew cheers from the crowd. It also was the first in a cluster of cover songs that included the Outlaws’ “New Life” and James McMurtry’s “Out Here in the Middle.” Keen also wrapped up a three-song solo mini set with Greg Brown’s “Laughing River.” He saved some of his most well known pieces for the very end and no, “Merry Christmas from the Family” wasn’t one of them. It’s October and way too early for holiday music, no matter how funny it is. “That Buckin’ Song” of course brought a chorus of hey-heys, ya-hoos and yippy-ki-ays. “Farm Fresh Onions” and “Road Goes On Forever” closed out the 19-song set, with the latter having nearly everyone out of their seat hootin’ and hollerin’. Keen’s neatly-parted coiffeur had come completely unraveled by that time, as his energy was reflected in the intensity with which he strummed his guitar.

Keen and his band reappeared onstagefor an encore almost as quickly as theyhad ran off and immediately went intocrowd-favorite “Feelin’ Good Again.” Theexhausting performance was finishedout with “Gringo Honeymoon,” as Keenpulled the microphone as far as its cordwould take it and paraphrased the song’sfinal line with “We gotta go!” beforedisappearing into the curtains. The crowdlooked exhausted, but heartily cheered theband offstage while they took a bow.Keen will be back in North Carolina onNov. 16 for a show at the Lincoln Theatreand I’m sure many of the same faces willbe in attendance. I know I’ll be checkinghis set lists in the days leading up to thatone. Maybe he’ll be in the Christmas spiritby then.