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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Keen brings a picnic to Cambridge

TT the Bears, Cambridge, Mass., June 4, 1997

By Jeffrey B. Remz

CAMBRIDGE, MA - Robert Earl Keen, the Texas country singer-songwriter, has undergone a few major changes in the past year.

For starters, he left the small, but respected independent label Sugar Hill for the big leagues of Arista.

And on his recently released album, "Picnic," he opts for less of a country vibe for one that is harder edged. In fact, his record company is marketing him as a rock act. It may take awhile, but the album grows on the listener.

But no matter what changes Keen may have undergone on the business and recording side of music, he showed at TT the Bear's Tuesday that one thing that has not changed is his ability to perform.

Keen hit the mark for most of the 1 3/4-hour show before an unfortunately small crowd of perhaps 100 people highlighting the new album and favorites from his past six albums. He may not be the best singer in the world - he has a distinct nasal quality to his singing - but at least he puts forth the songs with authority and seems emotionally invested in them as well.

The problem at the outset, however, was the vocals were mixed too low and the music too high, making you think he eschewed his past for rock. That changed after about four songs.

Keen's world is not necessary a pretty one. Of course, there is the loopy dysfunctional family in the humorous "Merry Xmas From the Family" (it works even when Christmas is six months away).

On a more serious note, the lonely life on the road with worries about his woman forgetting him is explored in "Oh Rosie," a '50's styled song.

Keen et al moved into higher gear starting with "I'm Going to Town." The guitar of Rich Brotherton, who played superbly all night whether harder edged or acoustic, and fiddle of Bryan Duckworth spearheaded the song. At one point, Keen came off the stage, acoustic guitar in hand, and looked back at the proceedings. He surely must have liked what he heard.

Keen, who possessed an easy going stage presence, engaging in banter with fans and joking around, mixed it up musically from there to the end. The sad "I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight" from "Picnic" proved to be a good musical change of pace with tender singing from Keen and Spanish guitar licks from Brotherton.

And towards the end, he picked it up yet again with perhaps his best known song - thanks to Joe Ely anyway - "The Road Goes on Forever." The soft opening quickly turned into an energetic stomper with more strong guitar playing from Brotherton, and the band cooking along.

Credit is due drummer Tom van Schaik in only his second gig ever with Keen. van Schaik kept a steady beat under less than ideal circumstances.

Even with big changes that could conceivably increase Keen's musical presence, the quality remains the same.