Walking into Plano's Courtyard Theater on Thursday night felt a bit like walking into Addison's WaterTower Theatre or perhaps Dallas' Kalita Humphreys Theater. Among the well-dressed crowd, there were some older folks milling about, chatting in the modern-designed foyer as an air of formality wafted through the space. There were some young punks there too, of course, in all of their worn-out, yet still embroidered jeans and overly-decorated caps and "nice" T-shirts. But even with them there, this wasn't going to be your typical Texas Country concert.
After local folk-rocker Ronnie Fauss effectively warmed up the roughly 300 people in the sold-out room with his wit and his excellent interplay with multi-instrumentalist Eric Neal, who played the accordion, fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin through Fauss' eight song set, Bandera native Charlie Robison strolled onto the stage with his long-time lead guitar player, Mark Tokach, and loosened the audience up further. If things felt a touch stuffy upon entering the building before the music began, things became casually and comfortably intimate with Robison's charm and professional crowd-pleasing tendencies.
This show represented the opening night of the now annual Courtyard Texas Music Series, put-on through a partnership with the City of Plano and KHYI 95.3 The Range. Coming months are just as promising, with Joe Ely, Chris Knight and Ray Wylie Hubbard set to take-hold of the lovely venue where there wasn't a bad seat to be found.
Now back to the concert: That Robison was able to turn in a fun, loose and damn-near heart-warming show isn't a surprise to anyone whose even remotely kept up with the Texas Country scene in the past 15 years. Robison, along with Jack Ingram, Pat Green, Cory Morrow and Robert Earl Keen right before them, were paving the way for the mammoth industry that Texas Music has become by simply playing in every joint they could and recording at a rapid pace in the late 1990's. In a sense, this was a night for Robison to enjoy his place as a forerunner a tad.
Of the 11-song, 70 minute set, the newest tune Robison played was his post-divorce warm-and-fuzzy song, "Feelin' Good," from his superb 2009 LP, Beautiful Day. There would be no testing out brand-new material, no busting out covers of any kind and no real urgency to be anything other than what he's been for all these years. In fact, it's that song that possessed the line with the most impact that was especially noticeable in the acoustic setting. When Robison pensively sang, "I guess you never we're the one," it was impossible to not know he was referring to his ex-wife, Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks, and to not feel a lump in your throat.
Of course, it wasn't all divorce and solitude. The set started out with material that some of the crowd clearly wasn't prepared for from a thematic perspective. Out of the first six songs Robison offered with a laid-back grizzle, four of them, including the set-opening pair of "Good Time" and "New Year's Day," Robison sang literally about getting stoned, taking some money to "that girl who loves a horse," and using porn to get through a baby-making session with an unattractive female in the still-funny "You're Not the Best." In that song, which his brother, Bruce Robison, wrote, he flubbed a line about not caring if an ugly girl dumped him, only to start it again, and flub it again. Good fun for all.
Some of the giggles were from shock and awkwardness in the beginning, but again, things got real mellow and real calm, real quick. At one point, about halfway through the set, Robison looked to his left at some folks that were sitting in sweet-looking VIP seats sitting on the end of the stage itself, he placed his mouth near his mic and asked, "So, who'd you have to blow to get those seats." The crowd, now fully-used to Robison's taudry humor, erupted with guttural laughter.
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Along with rough-housing renditions of "John O'Reilly" and "Barlight," there were powerfully emotive takes on "Photograph" and even the chuckle-inducing "Sunset Boulevard" where people got a kick out of Robison wanting to spend all of his money "on caviar and cocaine." Throughout the set, especially in a funky, jammy break of a perennial Robison highlight, "El Cerrito Place," Tokach deftly displayed why Robison has kept him around for so long. Simply, Tokach makes Charlie look and sound really good.
For the encore, Robison has made a habit in the past few years of dedicating his most beloved song, the iconic Texas Country-tune "My Hometown," to service men and women overseas who've written him and told him they play the song in the desert camps so as to remind them of home. Last night, there was a young serviceman home for a bit on the front-row of the show and Robison pointed him out to enthusiastic applause. A soldier currently serving our country, coupled with the song's comforting, yet longing sense of what and where home is, made for a powerhouse ending. In the course of just over an hour, we were moved from shock, to laughs, to quiet introspection, back to laughter and then to the sincere appreciation for what moves and inspires us all.
With Robison playing the hits and joking around without any filter in-place, It might've seemed as he was the one having all the fun, but indeed, we were all in on the joke, and Robison made the crowd got all they wanted.