Robert Earl Keen sauntered slowly onto the stage at The Birchmere, waved to the crowd, and proceeded to say that he “didn’t have any answers” for his appearance at the venerable Northern Virginia club last week.
Sitting in a chair with nothing but an acoustic guitar and two water bottles on a table beside him, the legendary singer-songwriter did not provide further explanation for his decision to appear for two nights at the intimate 500-seat concert hall, or what the future would hold for future shows outside Texas. But he did call The Birchmere his favorite indoor venue and nodded to San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass as his chosen outdoor festival before starting a warm 21-song, 95-minute set filled with storytelling asides.
And no medleys. Keen played by his own set of rules, something that — for better and/or worse — is a common theme among the musicians I enjoy.
Several weeks ago, the ring and pinky fingers on my left hand started tingling and intermittently went numb. Last week, I bit down on a chocolate covered caramel at the end of a long day, only to feel fortunate I didn’t swallow the piece of my molar that had become embedded in it.
The scourge of aging is a fact. At the same time, it has given me a bad case of FOMO, especially when it comes to music.
Mid-August through this past weekend has been a huge time for me and live music in the DMV. Keen’s show was the fifth I’ve shot in five weeks, with all but two shows (X/Squirrel Nut Zippers at the 930 Club and Turnpike Troubadours/Lucero/Reckless Kelly at The Anthem) taking place at The Birchmere.
Thanks to my work with Americana Highways, I mostly shoot and review the shows I ask for, but doing this many in such a short span of time has been an onerous undertaking. Among other things, I also shot two conferences and went to Michigan to report on a magazine story this month.
I look at it this way. I’m staring down the barrel of 60. Many of the musicians I enjoy are my age or older. And despite the fact that touring is the only way to make money with music sales in the toilet (much like photography sales, as noted ruefully), most acts I enjoy come through once a year at best. If you miss them now, you might not get to see them again.
That’s how I felt about seeing Keen, who called it quits on regular touring last September following a dramatic and difficult farewell run that featured a bus fire, back spasms that forced him to sit during shows, and a face partially paralyzed from Bell’s palsy. It has made his intermittent re-emergence on stages over the past several months a welcome surprise, and tickets for The Birchmere’s two-night run sold out quickly.
The scene at Keen’s show was a reminder of the affection and appreciation the Houston native has engendered in the four decades since his debut album, “No Kinda Dancer,” was released in 1984. Unlike many musicians eligible for Social Security, his audience has always included a broad mix of fans, from recent college graduates to folks old enough to call him “Son.”
Going solo like Keen, I parked my car behind a man who labored as he shuffled toward the club with a walker. We made brief small talk and I asked if he was OK. “I’ve had a bad day, but I know I’m going to have a good night,” he said with a smile, noting this was his 21st time to see Keen perform.
Many of those shows, he noted, occurred at The Birchmere.
Open since 1966 and in its current location since 1997, the club has been a home away from home for Texas and Americana musicians, many of whose faces adorn the walls in autographed photos on the hallway outside the main performance room. A sit down “listening hall,” it is tiny enough that bands with a small to midsize following can feel like they are playing to a full house. For larger acts, it offers an opportunity to charge a premium price and still perform in an intimate setting.
I’ve seen countless shows at The Birchmere since moving to the Washington, D.C. area in 2001 and have learned how to shoot in the club — usually just the first three songs — without disturbing the audience too much. To see more examples of the other recent shows I’ve shot click here — Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore with Dead Rock West, James McMurtry/Betty Soo, and Patty Griffin/Scott Miller
Keen, a strong candidate for the Mount Rushmore of Americana, is a deity in Texas and one of country music’s most respected songwriters, yet never has managed to commercially break through nationwide. The Birchmere, with its beautiful acoustics and attentive audience, is the perfect place to see him.
Inside, I sat at a table opposite a Texas A&M graduate who had moved to the area for his first out of school job. Keen is a Texas A&M legend and the 23-year-old man was there to pay his respects. Next to us was a couple who had driven 400 miles from Hickory, N.C., to catch the show; the man wore a Texas Longhorns shirt and bemoaned the fact he couldn’t return for the second of the two nights because of work.
From the moment the show started, audience members pulled out their phones to take photos and capture video snippets of longtime favorites. Songs like “Corpus Christi Bay,” “Dreadful Selfish Crime,” “Feelin’ Good Again,” and “I Gotta Go” became singalong opportunities, but on most songs, numerous people in the crowd could be seen mouthing the words along with Keen.
He did three “mini-songs” — “Friend/Unfriended,” which has a great (if profane) last line; “Tesla/Austin,” comparing the Texas capital to the days before and after Elon Musk (or, as I like to refer to it, BM and AM); and “Municipal Airport,” which is somewhat self-explanatory. Keen also played “Western Chill,” the title cut from his latest, post-farewell tour album.
The audience took over during “Merry Christmas from the Family,” the trailer park classic that manages to incorporate drunk parents, celery, tampons, intolerant in-laws, homemade egg-nog, chain smoking, bean dip and fake snow into what has become a year-round staple at Keen’s shows. And “The Road Goes On Forever” — a hope for everyone in the audience — was a joyous end before his single encore number, a cover of Charlie Robison’s “My Hometown.”
Robison, a Keen disciple, died earlier this month at age 59. Keen talked about his longtime friend, who also would be honored with a cover of the same song by the Turnpike Troubadours and Reckless Kelly in a show I saw three days later.
“The thing is, Charlie was really good at listening and giving really good, original advice,” said Keen, who performed at Robison’s memorial service and is auctioning a guitar to raise money for the singer’s family. “But he never took it from anyone. Never.”
By this point, Keen seemed to be getting a little tired. His left hand did not appear to be cooperating (I sympathized), although overall it didn’t affect his playing. As he sang the song about his dear friend, the crowd did what you might expect.
They joined in.
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Show Review: Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett Telling Stories Without a Setlist at the Birchmere in VA