Robert Earl Keen brings a little Christmas cheer to Greene Street

by Ryan Snyder

Sons of Bill provide enthusiastic support to Robert Earl Keen. (photo by Brian Stowell. ‘

The last time Robert Earl Keen was in town, a drove of his fans discarded their reserved seating at the Carolina Theatre and packed the pit area at the front of the stage for another of his typical performances. By typical, I’m saying it was funny, spirited and absorbing, because those words can be used to describe nearly every show he gives. This time around, the venue might have been better suited for the rowdy barroom types that frequent his gigs, though the older, more reticent half of his fan base might have been wishing for the insulated confines of the Carolina Theatre midway through.

The bill was the same Friday night at Greene Street Club as then — Red Light Management mates Sons of Bill set the pace with a stirring set of Golden Era country that belied their young age. Guitarist James Wilson looks just as excited to be opening up for the Americana legend now as he did in 2008 and the band’s warm and inspiriting sound is maturing at a faster rate than the band themselves are.

It seemed to take Keen a little longer to get into his set than usual, however; the contrast between the youthful glow of Sons of Bill and Keen’s business-as-usual glower was kind of a before and after picture of life on the grueling, mid-level country touring circuit. After stepping right into opener “(My Home Ain’t in the) Hall of Fame,” Keen didn’t so much as crack a smile until towards the end of “Goin’ to Town,” though it seems impossible to express the joviality of the latter without reflecting it on one’s mug.

It took the affective “Levelland,” a scenic ballad by fellow Texan James McMurtry that Keen described as the DUI capital of Texas, before Keen’s body language really reflected the enthusiasm saturating the packed room, though from there on it seemed like this might be one of those rare shows that even the most tenured of fan holds in esteem. The seamless transition between “Shades of Grey” and “Amarillo Highway” saw the band showing off it’s deft chops a bit, particularly bassist Bill Whitbeck, who effortlessly shifted into the latter’s walking bassline. “That Buckin’ Song” of course brought a chorus of hey-heys, ya-hoos and yippy-ki-yays. The accompanying crowd sway brought a rather tense moment, as the drunken rabble in the middle of the room nearly started a brawl that could have unhinged the room’s good spirits. Fortunately, some of the most amiable bouncers in town dragged the nostrilflared instigator out by his high-and-tight.

Keen’s “On and On” might have been a recent Starbucks iTunes Pick of the Week, but his wry invective of coffee culture “Wireless in Heaven” was the caffeinated shot of humor that you come to expect from Keen mid-show. He followed the sweetlysentimental “I’m Comin’ Home” with the absurdly funny “Sin City,” an unrecorded number written during the Barstool tour that seemed to have more than a little of the Todd Snider influence.

A strong run of crowd favorites started on “What I Really Mean” and carried through “Feeling Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon,” before the storytelling spirit took hold and Keen relayed the a story about his accommodations in Challis, Idaho during the Braun Brothers reunion — which, of course, is the premise behind “Village Inn Motel.” The jaunty cowboy ditty “A Border Tragedy” was the sly precursor to easily the 23-song set’s most unexpected moment, as the lazy intro to “Merry Christmas from the Family” drew a wave of exuberant hollering. Now, there are exactly six weeks out of the year where Christmas music is tolerable, but this one is a rare exception. It’s simply a great song any time.

As always, “The Road Goes on Forever” closed out the long set with a masterful round of solos, particularly by guitarist Rich Brotherton, who showed a heavy predilection toward hard rock. There was little drama surrounding the possibility of an encore, as the capacity at Greene Street made an exit and triumphant return impossible, so Keen and the band huddled alongside the stage as James and Sam Wilson made their way up to join them for “Goin’ Nowhere Blues,” a perfect forum for the two talented guitarists to affirm their traditional sensibilities.