On verge of retiring, Robert Earl Keen revisits 'Austin City Limits' for emotional taping
When Robert Earl Keen announced in January that he plans to stop touring after an extensive run of shows this spring and summer, it came as somewhat of a surprise — given that it was Keen himself who wrote the Americana classic "The Road Goes on Forever." But at 66, the well-traveled Texas troubadour has put in the decades of dues to deserve the break.
He's also certainly earned one more shot at "Austin City Limits," and he got it on Wednesday evening at ACL Live. Keen, who'd taped six previous episodes of the iconic TV show dating back to the late 1980s, likely will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame sometime soon.
On this night, though, the focus was not about the past or the future, but squarely on the present. In a 16-song, 100-minute set that spanned nearly the full run of his career, Keen and his five-piece backing crew sounded as lively and vibrant as ever. Keen, who says he'll continue to make records, clearly has a lot left in the tank as a musician; but for now, catch him while you still have the chance.
Many more fans than the 2,000-odd folks at Wednesday's show tuned in via livestream from the program's website. More will no doubt catch him at the new Round Rock Amp outdoor venue on May 6. And another Austin date is expected to be announced before Keen wraps it all up on Labor Day weekend at Floore's Country Store in Helotes.
"Tonight is going to be an emotional night," ACL executive producer Terry Lickona said just before Keen took the stage, and you could indeed see that emotion in Keen's face many times during the show. Often he seemed to be gazing out on the crowd and taking it all in, knowing there are not many more moments like this ahead.
One noticeable change was the stool Keen sat on at center stage. His explanation for the stool was laced with his trademark wry humor: "I decided to practice a little bit" for retirement by sitting down.
Keen's band has undergone a few changes in recent years. Longtime guitarist Rich Brotherton departed in 2019, steel guitarist Marty Muse exited during the pandemic, and mandolinist Kym Warner recently moved back to his native Australia. But the ace rhythm section of bassist Bill Whitbeck and Tom Van Schaik are still in place.
Multi-instrumentalist Brian Beken proved quite valuable with his contributions on fiddle as well as acoustic and electric guitar. Beken's former MilkDrive bandmate Noah Jeffries added more acoustic guitar from a back riser alongside a ringer of a special guest in pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, whose 32 appearances on "Austin City Limits" are the most by any musician.
Technical difficulties in the opening couple of songs forced an early re-do of "Gringo Honeymoon," but the band took it in stride. The second take allowed Keen a chance to expound a little bit on how the song emerged from a trip on donkeys to the Mexican town of Boquillas just across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. "We might just double down on the whole set," Keen joked after the second take turned out well.
Early highlights included the set-opening "Feelin' Good Again," a song about legendary drummer Levon Helm titled "The Man Behind the Drums," and a notably more rocked-up arrangement of Keen's early '90s favorite "Corpus Christi Bay." More humor came in the introduction to the anthemic "Dreadful Selfish Crime": "I used to tell people I wrote this song at 3 in the morning on MoPac. At least that's what the police report said. But that's not true. I was actually on I-35."
Keen's introduction to "Mariano," from his 1989 album "West Textures," shed light on his development as a songwriter. Explaining that he'd moved to Nashville in the mid-1980s after five years of playing shows "all over town" in Austin, he'd tried to write "happy, crappy" songs for Nashville publishers before returning to Texas and settling in Bandera. He struck up a friendship with man from Mexico and wrote "Mariano" about his struggles as an immigrant. It marked a turning point in Keen's approach to songwriting.
A slight lull down the home stretch immediately gave way to a boisterous finale as soon as Keen sang the opening line of "The Road Goes on Forever." The crowd rose to their feet, clapping and singing along like the party would never end.
Keen followed with "I'm Comin' Home" (the song he's chosen as the title of his farewell tour) and the similarly fitting "I Gotta Go," tipping his hat and waving to the crowd before returning for a single-song encore of his cheeky holiday favorite "Merry Christmas From the Family." It hadn't been on the set list, but Keen explained that somebody backstage "gave me 5 bucks" to play it. "So what am I gonna do?"