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Robert Earl Keen
July 21, 2017 @ 7:00 pm - 11:59 pm$25
ROBERT EARL KEEN
“The road goes on forever …”
It’s not always easy to sum up a career — let alone a life’s ambition — so succinctly, but those five words from Robert Earl Keen’s calling-card anthem just about do it. You can complete the lyric with the next five words — the ones routinely shouted back at Keen by thousands of fans a night (“and the party never ends!”) — just to punctuate the point with a flourish, but it’s the part about the journey that gets right to the heart of what makes Keen tick. Some people take up a life of playing music with the goal of someday reaching a destination of fame and fortune; but from the get-go, Keen just wanted to write and sing his own songs, and to keep writing and singing them for as long as possible.
“I always thought that I wanted to play music, and I always knew that you had to get some recognition in order to continue to play music,” Keen says. “But I never thought of it in terms of getting to be a big star. I thought of it in terms of having a really, really good career and writing some good songs, and getting onstage and having a really good time.”
Now three-decades on from the release of his debut album — with well over a dozen other records to his name, thousands of shows under his belt and still no end in sight to the road ahead — Keen remains as committed to and inspired by his muse as ever. And as for accruing recognition, well, he’s done alright on that front, too; from his humble beginnings on the Texas folk scene, he’s blazed a peer, critic, and fan-lauded trail that’s earned him living-legend (not to mention pioneer) status in the Americana music world. And though the Houston native has never worn his Texas heart on his sleeve, he’s long been regarded as one of the Lone Star State’s finest (not to mention top-drawing) true singer-songwriters. He was still a relative unknown in 1989 when his second studio album, West Textures, was released — especially on the triple bill he shared at the time touring with legends Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark — but once fellow Texas icon Joe Ely recorded both “The Road Goes on Forever” and “Whenever Kindness Fails” on his 1993 album, Love and Danger, the secret was out on Keen’s credentials as a songwriter’s songwriter. By the end of the decade, Keen was a veritable household name in Texas, headlining a millennial New Year’s Eve celebration in Austin that drew an estimated 200,000 people. A dozen years later, he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame along with the late, great Van Zandt and his old college buddy, Lyle Lovett.
The middle child of a geologist father and an attorney mother, Keen was weaned on classic rock (in particular, the psychedelic blues trio Cream) and his older brother’s Willie Nelson records — but it was his younger sister’s downtown Houston celebrity status as a “world-champion foosball player” that exposed him to the area’s acoustic folk scene. By the time he started working on his English degree at Texas A&M, he was teaching himself guitar and setting his poetic musings to song. That in turn led to a college fling with a bluegrass ensemble (featuring his childhood friend Bryan Duckworth, who would continue to play fiddle with Keen well into the ‘90s) and front-porch picking parties with fellow Aggie Lovett at Keen’s rental house — salad days captured in spirit on the Keen/Lovett co-write, “The Front Porch Song,” which both artists would eventually record on their respective debut albums.
One of life’s joys is to follow the thread of an artist, particularly one as talented and forthright as Kasey. Each album is seemingly a signpost of her station in life, and like any art worth its salt there’s enough common ground for all of us to feast upon. Heartache and redemption are good like that.
‘Dragonfly’ is Kasey Chambers’ 11th album and there is much to be learned even before you hear a note. When an artist has enough songs to fill a quarry and THEN they release a double album, well, this in itself seems like a statement of intent. This girl has something to say. In sporting vernacular, she’s hitting them cleanly.
That information paired with lead off single ‘Ain’t No Little Girl’ tells us much about the spirit of this LP. In the artist’s own words, ‘Ain’t No Little Girl’ was the first song written for the record and “the glue that holds the whole album together”. If there is one song that captures the spirit of the album then this might be it. It’s shoulders back and chin out, the kind of song that looks you in the eye. While it’s the spirit of the song that first hits you, the power of the singing stays with you.
Coupled with ‘Ain’t Worth Suffering’ and ‘Summer Pillow’ as a trio of songs, such is the passion of the delivery they sound almost confrontational. This is a singer who had major vocal surgery not so long ago, only to emerge stronger and keen to show us what that voice can do when let off the leash.
A luxury of a successful career and a swag of new songs tucked in your pocket is you can draw on a bit of help from your friends and peers, and this album boasts an impressive and eclectic ensemble.
Grizzlee Train won’t be strangers to anyone who’s seen a Chambers show in the last year or so, and their sweet sound adds a nice touch to the swampy blues of ‘The Devil’s Wheel’. Harry Hookey, who co-wrote part of this album, is best showcased on ‘No Ordinary Man’. Harry’s soulful singing combined with the lush tones from the darlings of Australian music, Vika and Linda Bull, give this track a finesse most artists would kill for.
If there is such a thing as an archetypal Kasey Chambers song, it might be ‘If We Had A Child’. It’s the kind of duet that should only be sung by old friends who have country music running through their veins. Mercifully, Keith Urban passes the test and the results are pretty goddamn gorgeous.
Foy Vance is another to be called upon in this motley crew and his Celtic bent only makes the haunting ‘Romeo And Juliet’ just that little more mystical. There’s other singing too, from a bloke called Paul Kelly. He appears on a few tracks, plays harmonica too, but it’s his long-sought-after services as producer that really got the Chambers gang revved up. So the story goes Kasey has been at Paul for a while to watch over a batch of her songs, and after hearing ’Ain’t No Little Girl’ and ‘Henri Young’ live some time ago he felt like the time was finally right to throw his hat into the ring. You can feel his easy presence throughout the album.
Dragonfly was recorded in two locations – the Kelly (Gang) sessions down south at Sing Sing studios, and up north during the Foggy Mountain sessions where brother Nash took control of Kasey’s live band.
This a serious record by a serious artist, but this isn’t a record to be played in a dark room with the curtains drawn. ‘Golden Rails’ is the type of song you’d take to Johnny Cash’s house for a campfire singalong. And I really wish I could’ve been in the studio to witness the recording of ‘Hey’, as Chambers and Kelly shout back and forth at each other: “Hey! You want it!” “Hey! You got it!”. You can hear the two smiling and laughing; you don’t hear that too often on a record these days.
The power of the pen means I get to indulge in my favourite track on the album and it just so happens to be the last. ‘Talkin’ Baby Blues’ is a riot! Never before has a song so raw and autobiographical been so outrageously funny.
Like all the best double albums, ‘Dragonfly’ leaps and dips like its name suggests. Twenty songs. A rambling, gambling, gorgeous patchwork quilt of styles and guises.
What holds it all together is the quality of songs. A songwriter of Kasey’s class in full stride is something to behold, and this ain’t her first rodeo. She knows what she’s doing. Some bruises and heartache remain, but what shines through is the artist’s irrepressible, optimistic spirit.
Life’s about balance, or so they say, so what would I ask for on the next album from our favourite gal? More handclaps. Clap clap.
– Robert Murphy, AFL Western Bulldogs Captain