Robert Earl Keen | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Robert Earl Keen



Robert Earl Keen is fond of lists. The off-kilter country songwriter from Bandera, Texas, catalogs subtle, often ordinary details with one-after-the-other mouthfuls that roll over his tongue with relish. "Merry Christmas From the Family"--on his superb new album Gringo Honeymoon (Sugar Hill), his sixth overall--finds him spitting out a shopping list during a Christmas party: "Send somebody to the Quik-Pak store / We need some ice and an extension cord / A can of bean dip and some Diet Rite / A box of tampons and some Marlboro Lights / Hallelujah, everybody say cheese." Initially the song comes off as a dysfunctional family tale, but closer inspection proves the setting isn't so unusual: a party strewn with relatives no one remembers, an outsider boyfriend attracting arched eyebrows, drunkenness, folks watching sports on TV, and brothers and sisters with different fathers milling about. In Keen's songs, as in the best country writing, the listener finds something familiar; even his more serious stuff--vivid, dark portraits lurking with emotional extremes--is easy to relate to. In "Blow You Away," from last year's A Bigger Piece of the Sky, Keen follows around a fellow who keeps his distance from everyone he encounters, for as kind as they seem they'd "just as soon blow you away." You almost have sympathy for the skittish lunk until the last verse reveals what the protagonist has buried in his mattress: "Under the lump there's a 20-gauge pump." Keen's deep dry voice isn't particularly strong in a conventional sense, but he delivers his compelling narratives with plenty of wit, feeling, and grace. He also possesses a rich melodic sensibility that draws casually on a variety of genres, from energetic bluegrass to contemplative folk to percolating swing and honky-tonk. Although Keen's not as relentlessly eclectic as his old songwriting chum Lyle Lovett, his striking blend of traditionalism and postmodernism is hard to resist. Saturday, 8 and 10 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 525-2508.

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