Not an electric guitar was in sight as Robert Earl Keen’s band took the stage of Whitney Peak Hotel’s Cargo on Friday, June 27 with the stripped down instrumentation of a folk group. However, that didn’t keep Keen and his merry band of consummate professionals from absolutely tearing through a nearly two-hour set of bluegrass standards and country favorites.
Wearing a plaid suit that looked as if it had been dipped in a bag of jelly beans, the iconic country storyteller was engaging and warm, his voice was gritty, adding a different but very welcome element to the bluegrass style they adopted for this tour and their latest album “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.”
With his talents as a showman and bandleader on full display, Keen lovingly ribbed the other members, told stories from his long past in show business and, most importantly, put on one helluva show. The crowd was lively throughout the set, clapping, stomping, and howling to the rockabilly tunes and singing along with hits like “Ride” and “Feelin’ Good Again.” Keen seamlessly switched gears between the two distinct styles and performed both with poise indicative of a true professional.
Even without their usual electric instruments or a full drum kit backing them up, the band produced a raucous and vibrant sound. Its tightness was striking and the arrangements were as clean as their suits. Even with all of the considerable chops on stage there was no incessant jamming that could have bogged down the set, each member made sure to serve the song first and foremost. Keen’s longtime guitarist, Rich Brotherton, was tasteful and nuanced, often smiling as he put on a clinic in bluegrass flatpicking, while dobro player Marty Muse added color to each song weaving melodies between lyrics. Bassist Bill Whitbeck and drummer Tom Van Schaik locked in to each tune and provided the backdrop for the evening even though, as Keen explained, Whitbeck had never played upright before the last album was recorded.
For this tour, Keen added mandolin player Kym Warner from The Green Cards and fiddle player Brian Bacon. Their chemistry with the longtime core of Keen’s band was undeniable and the attitude onstage was that of six guys performing at their local bar, reveling in the rapport they’ve created with each other. There was just as much respect as there was talent on that stage.
As the night wound down, the band heated up and ended the evening with encores of the bluegrass drinking song “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” the Gene Watson classic “Fourteen Karat Mind” and, of course, “The Road Goes On Forever.”
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be here,” Keen said, reading the minds of everyone in the room. And with that sentiment, the show may have come to a close but the party never ends.
Los Angeles-based country singer Sam Outlaw performed a set of cute original songs with singer-guitarist Molly Jenson. While they were both affable and charming, they often seemed unprepared and spent a considerable portion of their set tuning their guitars and discussing which songs to play.