Performer proves keen in concert
Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., May 17, 1996
By Jeffrey B. Remz
SOMERVILLE, MA - Robert Earl Keen received acclaim as a sharp songwriter, penning many strong, solid tunes during his career.
That still may be the case, but now Keen appears to be coming into his own as a performer at least based on his show at Johnny D's.
Of course, the songs still remain of quality (it's hard to top "Merry Christmas From the Family," for example, in singing about a dysfunctional family), but what has seemingly improved was the vocal quality and ability to adept to different musical styles with one hot band to boot.
Keen started off with "I'm Going to Town," also the lead-off on his fine new "No. 2 Live Dinner." Thanks in part to fiddler extraordinaire Bryan Duckworth, the song possessed a Western swing bent. Yet, elsewhere during the two-set, 105-minute show before a few hundred people, Keen et al could be seen in rock, straight-ahead country and more of a singer-songwriter mode.
And that is one of the beauties of Keen. He is not pigeonholed by any particular style. Yet, he is also not a dilettante. He is equally adept and comfortable whatever the style. That is partially made possible by the band. In addition to Duckworth, who played mandolin as well, drummer Mark Thomas Patterson kept a steady, powerful beat throughout and Rich Brotherton on lead guitar and Bill Whitbeck on bass also added meat to the songs. This was one band that knew how to cook and stretch songs out without giving a same-old, same-old feel.
Keen has tended to sing in a nasal tone, a better version of Bob Dylan, though sometimes a bit flat.
But now Keen sings out with more force and authority than ever. The nasal still comes to the fore at times, and when it's not there, the songs seem to click just a little bit more. This is a voice that has grown better with age. The confidence is ever apparent.
Keen et al all brought it to the fore during the closing "The Road Goes on Forever," made famous by Joe Ely. The elongated version was the perfect cap to an evening with the words, "The road goes on forever/the party never ends."
Of course, it had to, but Keen can add his strength as a performer to his musical resume.
Fred Eaglesmith, a Canadian who just released his American debut on a tiny Nashville label, was sterling during his opening set. Like Keen, he, too, can pen a song and add humor to the stories spun. In "Alcohol and Pills," about the death of musicians such as Hank Williams Sr. and Elvis, Eaglesmith kicked notoriety in the face, singing, "Fame doesn't take away the pain/It just pays the bills."
Eaglesmith was so well-received, a well-deserved encore was demanded by the crowd.