By Paul T. Mueller –
Robert Earl Keen, who earlier this year announced his intention to retire from touring after more than four decades, probably could have phoned in his farewell tour. His legions of fans likely would have eaten it up in any event. Instead, the beloved Texas singer-songwriter seems to be taking his last go-round very seriously, while having a lot of fun to boot.
Keen brought his “I’m Comin’ Home” tour to the Martin Center for the Arts at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, on June 5. His set, which lasted a little more than an hour and a half, featured several of his biggest hits, along with seldom-heard deep cuts and a few well-chosen covers. The audience responded enthusiastically, often singing along on choruses, but listening respectfully during the quieter passages.
Playing before a large backdrop captioned “I’m Comin’ Home” and “41 Years on the Road,” Keen opened with several older songs, including “Mr. Wolf and Mamabear,” from his 2014 album What I Really Mean. He noted that a fan had once sent him a 12-page essay detailing how the song’s somewhat fanciful lyrics were in fact an explanation of World War II. A few songs later he sang “Charlie Duke Took Country Music to the Moon,” a true story that he described as “a fake song” from Burn Band, a little-noticed album he and fellow Texan Randy Rogers recorded under the fictitious name The Stryker Brothers. The song describes how astronaut Duke, one of the last people to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 16 crew, had taken a mixtape of classic country songs with him on his lunar journey.
Remembering John Prine, Nanci Griffith
Keen introduced his raucous fishing tale “The Five Pound Bass” by noting that guitarist/fiddler Brian Beken had spent some happy time fishing earlier that day. Next came a funny anecdote from his days opening for John Prine, and a sensitive cover of Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.” That in turn was followed by stories of touring with revered singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith, who he said treated him with respect and kindness early in his career. After setting the scene with a lovely description of a wee-hours hotel room performance of Ralph McTell’s “From Clare to Here” by Griffith and two other singers – a moment he called the single most beautiful musical of experience of his life – he shared his own rendition of the song.
Keen eventually moved into more familiar musical ground with “Feelin’ Good Again,” segueing quickly into fan favorite “Gringo Honeymoon.” Next up were a couple of his older and funnier songs, “Copenhagen” (“Copenhagen, what a wad of flavor”) and “It’s the Little Things,” an ode to marriage featuring that rarest of moments, an acoustic guitar solo by Keen (it was more than competent). The main set finished with “Corpus Christi Bay,” a tale of two brothers whose relationship is fueled by sometimes irresponsible behavior, and the rousing “The Road Goes on Forever.” After a brief break, Keen returned solo for the wildly popular “Merry Christmas from the Family.” A pretty good Aggie joke (Keen attended Texas A&M University, where such humor is a staple) led into “The Front Porch Song,” which Keen wrote with fellow Aggie Lyle Lovett about their college days. Keen closed with “I’m Comin’ Home,” rejoined partway through by his band, which along with Beken featured his longtime rhythm section, bassist Bill Whitbeck and drummer Tom Van Schaik. It made for a fine end to a joyous and very enjoyable evening.
The chorus of one of Keen’s best-known songs declares that “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.” That might prove wishful thinking, if he’s serious about retiring. And even though, song lyrics notwithstanding, all parties must end at some point, this one seems destined to continue for a while yet. Keen’s tour continues through the summer, including a July 9 date at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and is scheduled to end in Texas in early September.
Nashville-based singer-songwriter John R. Miller opened the show with a 30-minute set featuring well-crafted and personal lyrics backed by excellent guitar playing. Fiddler Chloe Edmonstone contributed fine playing and vocals.