Critics' Picks

Robert Earl Keen's Texas Uprising

In theory, Robert Earl Keen's Texas Uprising is a splendid idea: A celebration of rising singer-songwriter and neo-country talent from Texas, capped off by one of the state's finest products since Big Red soda. In practice, it's almost as good, if slightly schizoid to these ears. First and foremost, the Uprising provides fans of Keen and the other acts on the bill with a generally appetizing Memorial Day weekend banquet of musical acts. It's also a career boost and, no doubt, a moneymaker for Keen; the Uprising has been developing into a showcase for the acts managed by Robert Earl and his wife, Kathleen, including Reckless Kelly, The Hollisters, and Rodney Hayden.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that there are two Robert Earl Keens, and the Uprising leans heavily toward only one of them. Unfortunately, it's not the literate Texas song-poet, which is who I think the real Robert Earl Keen is, based on our conversations, both formal and informal, about his career and audience in his home state. Rather, it's the other Robert Earl Keen, or maybe better, the Keen that his many beer-swilling, party-hearty fans perceive him to be: The icon for the notion, as he sings in "The Road Goes On Forever," that "the party never ends." These folks are also the ones who don't get the song's rather obvious irony, which is punctuated by the fact that, at the end of the tale, its protagonist is slated to be fried by the state of Texas. And they are the same sort of people who, at the last Keen gig I attended, talked loudly during the portion of the set in which Keen played the quieter yet sublime material from his last release, Walking Distance. The way I look at it, these are the fans who don't get the real Robert Earl Keen, seeing him only as the man they want him to be, the King of the Aggies for young 'uns weaned on Jerry Jeff Walker.

The former Robert Earl is still there in every set, and his consciousness can be heard in a number of the other acts on the bill--well, maybe not Reckless Kelly, and definitely not Pat Green. Still, if I had my druthers, the Texas Uprising I'd like to see is the wholly different one in early June held near Santa Cruz, California. For that show, the bill reflects the genuine Robert Earl Keen: Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Joe Ely, Slaid Cleaves, Iris DeMent, Dallas boy Jack Ingram (who at least aspires to be like the Keen of admirable talent and writing ability), and James McMurtry, among others. The Uprisings here may be approaching the annual stature of Willie Nelson's Fourth of July picnic, but my fear is that Keen's big party is too much of an excuse for liquid lunches and dinner, and not enough of a musical celebration, despite the preponderance of worthy talent on the bill. Maybe it's time to book that flight to California.

Rob Patterson

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Rob Patterson