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Bootleg Country: Robert Earl Keen – Live at the Strawberry Festival, 2000

A few years back some friends of mine dragged me to a Robert Earl Keen concert at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville. Dragged isn’t really the right word as I went freely, it is just that I didn’t know any of Robert Earl’s music. It was the first time I’d ever paid money to see someone I didn’t know. It was a wonderful show – great, great fun and some fine musicianship – and it taught me to take risks on concerts. Since then I’ve gone to many shows without knowing much about the performer, and I’ve never regretted it.

Robert Earl Keen lies somewhere in the vast genre that is alt.country. You’ll get plenty of banjo and fiddle when you listen to him, yet he never shies away from an electrified guitar solo either. He treads the water of a redneck, or good-old-boy persona and his songs carry the gleam of that camp, but careful listeners will find a character of much more depth. On the surface his songs are often silly and light-weight, but in reality there is the fine craftsmanship of a true songwriter.

A concert staple “The Road Goes on Forever” carries the refrain “The road goes on forever and the party never ends.” It is a line that never fails to draw hoots and hollers from the crowd as they life their beers and toast to that never ending party. Yet the lyrics tell a darker tale about a Bonnie and Clyde type couple and ends not in the least bit happy.

Such are Robert Earl’s songs full of fool hearty moments for those looking for a party, and yet something more lurking below the surface.

Well… except when they aren’t, such as the “That Buckin’ Song” which is a bout a horse and the running gag of using version of the word “buck” which sounds ever so much like a less family friendly word and concludes with the line “That bucking mother bucker will buck you on the ground.” Nope, no depth to that, but its delivered with such wry glee that it never fails to make me smile.

This show took place at the Strawberry Music Festival in Yosemite, California, and as such was but a part of a larger collection of musicians and music. From the sounds of the audience it must have been quite a festival as they seem a bit subdued and low key by this point.

The show starts off in fine form with a 8 minute jammed out version of “Dreadful Selfish Crime.” The band starts it with a slow, slinky groove and appreciation from Robert Earl for “sticking around.” Lyrically the songs versus reminisce about a life that doesn’t sound too bad where the singer spends his time watching TV and strumming guitars, but the chorus tells us that this life is in fact a crime, as it wastes the most precious thing we have – time.

Not everything is so serious and preachy, there are plenty of silly goofy songs including “That Buckin’ Song” and the “Five Pound Bass.” Between those two Robert Earl lets out a bit of his customary bad humor by saying “in most countries around the world it is customary to follow a horse song with a song about a fish.” That’s probably not funny when you read it. Well, its not really funny when you hear it either, but it makes me smile at just how unfunny it is all the same. Throughout the show he slings similar bits of non-humor and it is all part of his charm.

As if to make up for the bad jokes, the band is crackerjack that easily move from Texas swing to dirty rock to slow country ballads. The sound is good too, the instruments come in clean and clear and Roberts vocals are great. There is enough audience noise to remind the listener that this is a concert recording yet they never distract or overwhelm.

The highlight of the concert is the three part epic “jazz odyssey” consisting of the “Road to no Return/Carolina,” “New Life in Old Mexico,” and “Still Without You/Conclusion: Road to no Return.” It contains Robert Earls most ambitious writing to date and is something of a Wagnerian song cycle. Starting out slow and sad it moves into an upbeat rocker before returning to a forlorn ballad.

Robert Earl Keen will never be considered a Dylan or a Townes. He won’t gain the popularity of genuine superstar, or be remembered by critics and fans for decades to come. Yet he’s staked his claim as a solid songwriter and a high class performer who can both entertain and perhaps leave something lasting behind.

If this recording is any indication of things, here’s hoping he’s got many more years ahead of him.

About Mat Brewster

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    nice. this is exactly how i ended up being a fan of Greg Brown. never heard of him, went to a show…was more or less blown away.