Thursday, November 13, 2008
A trunk full of Shiner Bock and Lone Star
I had the pleasure this week of finally seeing a musician I really, really love and have been meaning to see live, play live. That would be the ever-lovin' Robert Earl Keen.
Having grown up in Texas, I was somewhat familiar with him - more his name than his music. Just a few songs here and there. I knew he was on Austin City Limits a lot, but as I hadn't really watched that show since the mid-80s, he didn't really resonate with me. It wasn't until the summer before my senior year in college that I picked him up. I was apartment-sitting for some friends who were doing summer stock shows around the country. One of my friends had REK's Picnic in his CD collection. As I love raiding other people's music, I made my way through his CaseLogic binder and got hooked. This really surprised me for two reasons: 1) my friend didn't seem the country music type; his collection was typified by Elliot Smith, Dave Matthews and Jamiroquai and 2) I, as a rule, don't really like country music, but Picnic was just that - a fun, tasty, "comfort-food" feast. I burned myself a copy (Shh! This was 1998, so it was okay.) and went on my merry way.
But it wasn't really until we moved to the East Coast that we slowly started collecting his albums. This is when I really started to appreciate him. Keen's voice is gravelly, nasal, a little higher register than you'd expect from a country singer and painted thick with a drawl more reminiscent of West Texas than his native Houston. More importantly, he captures the Texas experience - at least the middle, and I presume, lower class Texas experience - so bloody well. He sings the low-brow Texas fantasies (as in his signature The Road Goes on Forever, which I want played at my wake, btw), redneck realities like those in Merry Christmas from the Family (every Texan has at least one relative like those), sweet, simple pleasures as in Gringo Honeymoon and just general appreciations for the land that bore him (and me), all its people (Mariano) and all its beauty and flaws (Levelland). He's a troubadour that sings about Texas sometimes adoringly, sometimes sharply tongue in cheek, and when he's great, he accomplishes both, simultaneously. He doesn't sing only about Texas, but life in Texas inspires about 90% of his music.
Honey isn't much for him, so I talked a college girlfriend of mine, with whom I'm reconnecting, into joining me. She's a trooper. I wouldn't've been cajoled into spending $45 on a ticket to an unknown commodity the way she was by me. I'm far too cheap! But she did it and she had a blast, so I was happy, and I owe her. (As I do virtually everyone I know.)
When I saw him, he performed against black duvatene curtains. No flashy backdrop, not even a banner with his name on it, like his opener had. Just the man, his band and the music. Even the lighting was simple. It had motion, but the lighting was made up entirely of simple gelled lamps. Something I'd expect for a brand new musician playing his first "for real" gig, not for a man who has a following. And he rocked the joint! I really, really wish there had been space to dance, because there were moments when I just really wanted to two-step. My girlfriend two-stepped in place with me for a bit, but complained that I moved too much from my hips. If I don't use my hips, I betray the only Latina-seeming part of me. Plus, it's the only part of me that has any grace; I'm fairly uncoordinated and my legs often move like those of a foal when I dance. The crowd was among the whitest I'd seen in this area in quite a while, but I suppose that's to be expected. It wasn't Texas, but it was a close enough facsimile, that I felt really at ease. My girlfriend said she felt like we were back in college in Texas, what with the frat boys and country music.
Aside from dancing like a fiend in a crowd with a red solo cup full of beer and discovering I'm really, really shitty at remembering lyrics of even some of my most favorite songs, I think the most amusing part of the evening was the "cowboys." My brother sees Robert Earl Keen live every year or so. He plays Texas a LOT. He's huge; a legend, approaching the status of Stevie Ray Vaughn, there. Bro said the crowd he usually draws is a mixture of cowboys and hippies, which in some parts of Texas (Travis Co., I'm looking at you) are not mutually exclusive categories. Our East Coast crowd was mostly transplanted Texas and southern professionals, and New Englanders who let their hair down. But we did have some cowboy-hatted guys show up. They offered my friend and me Rebel Yell. (Uh, no thanks.) They were at the foot of the stage and occasionally waved their hats around. Had I actually been in Texas, there wouldn't've been a group of 5 or 6 hatted guys in the front; there'd've been a sea of hats, and boots. All fine. What bugged me was that their hats were funny looking. By no means do I claim to be an expert on western wear, but the material looked a little cheaper and the hats overall more colonial-flavored. Like someone took the material for a tri-corn hat, began making a bowler and then decided to give it a cowboy brim. They loved the show, but I think they loved the opportunity to wear their hats in public, just as much. It reminded me of a second-hand anecdote my dad told us in the late 80s. A friend of his was visiting her daughter in New York City. They decided to go to a country western bar in Manhattan to see how the locals did it. Apparently, all the guys in Manhattan were happy to two step with the ladies and did alright, but they tucked their jeans into their boots! (This is apalling, if you missed the subtlety of the italics and exclamation mark. You don't tuck into boots unless you're a dancing extra from the cast of Oklahoma!) But really, even if people don't pull off the dress with authenticity, I suppose the attempt is evidence of the appreciation. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, even if the imitation is off. Heavens knows if I tried to emulate the fashion of subcultures I admire, I'd fall way short. I can barely keep up with the subculture I'm a part of! (Bad yuppie!)
My only complaint about the show was that he was not as talkative as I'd hoped he'd be. I like singer/songwriters who spin short yarns and give us background. I was told by a friend of a friend that REK was, indeed, chatty. However, he didn't really engage until almost the end of the concert, which was too bad. My only other complaint is that we didn't stick around for him to sign merch. I got a shot glass, 'cause I'm classy like that, but I was thinking about getting a signed t-shirt for my brother. He'd love that. But alas, I am no longer a lass, nor is my friend, and we were tired, and had work the next morning. So we ducked out during the second encore song. Next time, I'm staying for the whole megillah. And I want some talk, Robert!