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On Country's Borders

Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen's literate tales of human emotion, with folk and rock subtext, set him apart.

August 23, 1996|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — It's easy to see why such respected singer-songwriters as Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely and Nanci Griffith have recorded songs by fellow Texan Robert Earl Keen. Literate, witty and funny, yet always heartfelt, Keen's tales effectively capture the highs and lows--and even the mundane in-betweens--of the human condition.

His sagas of wild Texas college boys ("The Road Goes on Forever,") and America's obsession with guns ("Sonora's Death Row," "Jesse With the Long Hair . . . ") are attention-grabbing, detail-rich portraits of larger-than-life characters and situations.

Yet Keen also uses his finely drawn narratives to hone in on the deep-seated fears and simple pleasures that are part of day-to-day life.

Touching on the happy and sad, the hits and misses, the tough and tender, Keen's 90-minute performance Wednesday at the Coach House was marked by his vivid storytelling.

The grainy-voiced singer-guitarist seamlessly moved from personal, even autobiographical sketches to universally themed tales of societal struggles and breakdowns.

From a bittersweet ode to a friend crossing the border ("Mariano") to a more desperate tale of one character's inescapable violence ("When Kindness Fails"), the songs shared at least one common thread: an unwavering directness and honesty, where little bits of truth popped in and out of his fictional characters.

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On the darker side were heart-wrenching stories of loneliness and busted dreams. The Graham Parker-like "Dreadful Selfish Crime" painted a bleak picture of one musician's self-pity and drunkenness. And even the romantic love of "Gringo Honeymoon" was undercut with the realization that a blissful moment may be a fleeting one.

Keen fights self-doubt and heartache with songs of hope, perseverance and possible redemption.

In "Leavin' Tennessee"--Keen's true story of his disillusionment with Nashville's country-music scene--he picks himself up and finds that true inspiration stems from the woman he loves. He sings: "The only two things that mean anything to me / Are loving you and leavin' Tennessee."

In another, "Think It Over One Time," Keen holds onto his self-esteem even in the face of losing his girl. He confidently declares: "I am just what I am / And I won't apologize / Think it over one time / Before you slip on your walkin' shoes."

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At times, Keen and his four-piece touring band turned perky and celebratory. Late in the set, a trio of fast-paced, uplifting songs got the crowd rocking, starting with the bouncy western swing of "Going to Town" and concluding with a rollicking, spirited version of "I'm Coming Home."

Keen and his bandmates were wonderfully versatile throughout the concert. The musicians were solid all around as they worked in a variety of styles, including country, folk, rock and western swing. Particularly outstanding was Bryan Duckworth, whose folksy mandolin strumming and dazzling fiddle bends added color and spice.

As the band was about to begin its second encore, the already small crowd had thinned to only about 100 or so.

Seizing the moment, Keen huddled the members of the band together, asked the soundman to cut the microphones, and proceeded to sing a stark, somber and intimate version of the dreamy "So I Can Take My Rest." It was a gentle and inspired moment that provided a fitting end to a concert defined by its endearing quality.

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The Kari Gaffney Band, which preceded Keen, recently released a six-song, self-titled debut CD that's heavy on blues-based ballads. On record, she sometimes sings tentatively, with little fire or soul. On Wednesday, she exhibited startling power and bite, projecting confidence and poise while hitting each song's emotional core.

While the energetic singer shined in the spotlight, her five-man band supplied solid support, as guitarist Brad Lewis, her husband-bassist Greg Gaffney and, in particular, Paul Kallestad--a monster on the Hammond B-3 organ--added their own voices to the band's still-evolving sound.

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