Sign up for newsletter
From the Country Standard Time Archives

Keen, Brown present a study in contrasts

House of Blues, Hollywood, Cal., Dec. 9, 1999

By Dan MacIntosh

HOLLYWOOD, CA - A study in contrasts underscores the double bill of Robert Earl Keen and Junior Brown. On the one hand, there was Keen, who, without a whole lot of flash, presented a set of well-written songs, sung simply. And on the other, Brown's set was colored by the man's fiery guit-steel playing, ocean-deep singing and hip retro image.

Of course, Brown is also a fine songwriter, but with all his many musical weapons, he could just have as easily covered Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears songs and still been riveting.

Keen, opening the killer double bill, clearly appeared to be enjoying himself on stage. As he explained, the band had just previously been in Las Vegas "playing for Iowans, who seemingly paid little attention to Keen's subtle charm. But Hollywood turns out to be a good city for Keen's music since many in the crowd sang along enthusiastically to his songs, even on some of the more obscure album cuts.

"Feelin Good Again," from the recent "Walking Distance," was an appropriate song to play this night. It's a reflection upon having a sense of contentment with one's circumstances, and Keen appeared to be every bit happy with "his space," as we Californians sometimes say.

Keen threw in a little holiday spirit with his dysfunctional carol "Merry Christmas From the Family," followed immediately by a festive version of "Feliz Navidad."

With few bells and whistles, Keen's set simply sparkled with superior songwriting, in the best Texas singer/songwriter tradition.

Brown hit the stage and immediately tore into the misunderstood trucker anthem, "Broke Down South of Dallas," showing off how seamlessly he can switch from electric guitar to steel guitar without ever missing a step in the song.

Unlike his previous appearance in town, Brown gave a little more time for his band to take center stage this night. His wife, Tanya Rae Brown, sounded especially fine. Her rich singing voice brought to mind Patsy Cline in many places, probably the ultimate compliment for any female vocalist to receive.

It's amazing how much power emits from Brown's sturdy compact band, especially when you consider that his drummer only has one snare and one cymbal, and he applies brushes rather than sticks most of the time. Additionally, his bassist only plays stand-up, and his second guitarist (Tanya Rae Brown) only plays an acoustic. This makes Junior the lone plugged-in player in the quartet.

It was fun to watch Pete Thomas (known best for his role as the drummer for Elvis Costello & The Attractions) sit in on "Hung it Up," since there's just not a whole heck of a lot for a drummer to do without a full kit to play with. Needless to say, there were no extended drum solos this night.

Instead, it was just another opportunity to witness why some of the best country music being made these days is coming from far outside the Tennessee borders, the ultimate study in contrast.