By Paul T. Mueller
A recent show at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, just north of Houston, marked a kind of homecoming for a pair of celebrated Texas singer-songwriters. The Sept. 11 gig featured Robert Earl Keen opening for friend and former college classmate Lyle Lovett, who was winding down his usual summer tour with his Large Band. Both are from the area – Keen grew up in southwest Houston, while Lovett is from the town of Klein, just northwest of the city. Plenty of friends, family members and longtime fans were in attendance on what turned out to be a mild late-summer evening at the open-air venue.
Backed by his longtime band, Keen started off with “Corpus Christi Bay,” an anthem to brotherly love and good times. Next came his tribute to the late Levon Helm of The Band, “The Man Behind the Drums.” More favorites followed over the next hour and a half – a solemn rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Flying Shoes”; a lively take on “Ready for Confetti”; the jazzy “Dreadful Selfish Crime,” featuring nice keyboards by Marty Muse, better known as a pedal-steel player; “Gringo Honeymoon,” with nice acoustic guitar work by Rich Brotherton, and “Shades of Gray,” Keen’s tale of small-time crime and mistaken identity, fueled by an excellent guitar duel between Brotherton and Muse.
Of course the set included two of the biggest hits of all: “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which Keen proclaimed as the official kickoff of the holiday season, and the closer, a hard-rocking treatment of the crime-love-and-betrayal ballad “The Road Goes on Forever.” Called back to the stage, Keen briefly quieted the crowd by saying he wanted to talk about “something a little bit serious” – but that turned out to be an announcement of the impending sale of “Robert Earl Keen beer” by a local grocery chain. The band finished with “I Gotta Go,” featuring Brotherton’s acoustic guitar and Muse’s resonator.
After a short intermission, Lovett’s Large Band took the stage with its usual instrumental intro. Lovett, accompanied by the legendary Francine Reed, came out and launched into the classic “Stand By Your Man.” A few songs later, the 14-piece ensemble took a jazzy turn on “Penguins,” featuring some quasi-line dance footwork by Lovett and others near the front of the stage, including Reed, fiddler Luke Bulla and guitarists Keith Sewell and Ray Herndon.
Lovett called Keen back to the stage for a beautiful rendition of “This Old Porch,” which the two wrote together during their college days at Texas A&M. “Robert and I are real friends, not just show-business friends,” Lovett noted at one point. A rousing version of “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” was followed by an extended take on “What I Don’t Know” in which almost every band member got to take a short solo – all of which Lovett observed with obvious appreciation.
After several more well-received numbers, including “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas),” “God Will” and “L.A. County,” Lovett turned the stage over to Bulla and Sewell, each of whom performed one of his own songs. Then came the crowd-pleasing “If I Had a Boat,” featuring nice cello work by John Hagen, and Lovett’s always-entertaining duet with Reed, “What Do You Do?” Then Reed got her turn in the spotlight, with excellent, high-energy performances of her signature tunes “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” and “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.”
Keen returned to join the choir for “Church,” whose joyful mood was only barely nicked by a rare vocal glitch on Lovett’s part. After more effusive thanks to the audience, Lovett left the stage, returning a few minutes later to close with a rocking rendition of Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.”
Contributing throughout was the excellent Large Band horn section, consisting of Harvey Thompson on tenor sax, Brad Leali on alto sax, Charles Rose on trombone and Chad Willis on trumpet. Also in fine form were the rhythm section – pianist Matt Rollings, drummer Russ Kunkel, conga player James Gilmer and bassist Viktor Krauss – and pedal-steel man Buck Reid.
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