Keen and cohorts rise up on the West Coast
Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, Watsonville, Cal., June 10, 2000
WATSONVILLE, CA The West Coast edition of Robert Earl Keen's Texas Uprising wasn't quite an all Texas affair, nor was it easy to categorize musically. But if it was all anything at all, it was all good.
Some artists, such as Iris Dement, weren't even from Texas. But she felt comfortable calling herself at least an honorary Texan. And though the audience was comprised of Northern Californians, Joe Ely kindly dubbed Watsonville "the sister city of Lubbock, TX."
The music could best be described as left of the mainstream, or just east of Nashville.
Keen closed the show at just about sundown with his normal high energy set that ranged from story songs like "Shades of Gray" to western swing-like "I'm Going to Town."
He played a reluctant host for this all-day festival and seemed to be an odd umbrella under which this afternoon's music was displayed, since he's by no means a big commercial success just like the rest of this displaced bunch.
Nevertheless, many artists took a few moments to tip their hats to Keen for helping put together such a fine sampling of Texas - and Texas-influenced - music.
Sarah Elizabeth Campbell proved that there is more to the world of female singer/songwriters than just delicate waif-like flowers, as she spiced up her between song chatter with colorful language, and then sang songs ranging from the robust Greg Trooper written "Ireland" to independent-minded "The Car Song."
Joe Ely opened with the passionate "All Just To Get To You," and retained that high energy throughout, as he closed with "Oh Boy" by Buddy Holly, who was, of course, another fine Texan.
It's hard to believe that this was Slaid Cleaves' first ever visit to the West. Assisted ably by the innovative Gurf Morlix on guitar, Cleaves kicked off his short eight-song set (about the average for performers on the second stage) with "No Angel Knows," went straight country with "Horseshoe Lounge" and closed with the naturalist/religious "This Morning I Am Born Again," which featured music Cleaves had added to Woody Guthrie's words.
At first, the gentle Dement appeared to be a poor fit for the wide open field of the main stage. This performer, who has turned her low self-esteem into a gold mine of great songs, is not the most extroverted of performers.
But when she got to the hesitantly hopeful "When My Morning Comes Around," the large crowd of beer swilling picnic-ers were completely enrapt and quiet. It was nearly miraculous.
James McMurtry, on the other hand, was just as poor a choice to play the main stage as he appeared on paper. Despite the lead guitar workout he gave such tunes as the funky "Fuller Brush Man," his music demands the intimacy only a smaller side stage can give him. He lost the crowd's attention, and fast, by no fault of his own. His unique work deserved better.
Although Jack Ingram is as equally unknown as McMurtry, his high-powered country- rock would have probably gotten this crowd on its feet. Of course, it doesn't hurt when one of your songs ("Juanita") namedrops the host either.
His set caught fire quickly, especially his cover of "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud Loud Music)." But just as he was working up a good head of steam, it was time for Ingram to finish his set.
As a final note, the concert's sponsor KPIG Radio, Santa Cruz - ought to be congratulated for putting on such a smooth running show. Outdoor shows can easily turn into disasters, but this festival held at the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds had plenty of room, accessible bathrooms, good healthy food and a courteous staff.
So much hospitality, in fact, it felt a lot like Texas.