Keen on Texas

Robert Earl Keen Sierra Nevada, Wed., June 16

After Master of Ceremonies Bob Littell poignantly opened Wednesday night’s show with 20 seconds of silence for the late, great Ray Charles, young singer/songwriter/ guitarist Matt King, a descendant of the infamous Hatfield family and a buddy of headliner Robert Earl Keen, played a satisfying half-hour set. Resembling a Southern version of Eminem, in looks and dress, the versatile King sounded at one point like country star Roger Miller, dealing with issues of living in the South, foreshadowing Keen’s impressive knack for storytelling in song.

REK and his top-notch crew—lead guitarist/back-up vocalist Rich Brotherton; Marty Muse on pedal steel; Bill Whitbeck on bass, back-up vocals and harmonica; and drummer Tom Van Schaik—wasted no time getting on stage after King’s set. Keen instantly came across as self-possessed and friendly, with a uniquely Texan aura of calmness combined with witty assertion—a captivating performer. It is no wonder he has what might easily be called a cult following.

Keen’s “Mariano,” about a Mexican gardener working in the United States, and “Sonora’s Death Row,” from his 1989 West Textures, were perfect examples of his superb ability to portray what is sometimes a gritty life in the Southwest. Also from West Textures, “Love’s a Word I Never Throw Around,” with bassist Whitbeck singing harmony, was lovely.

On the first encore song, the new "Farm Fresh Onions," Keen aligned himself with the tradition of the great Texas troubadours with the simple wisdom, "Happiness is nothing more than Sunday at the zoo…"