Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen celebrated their friendship at the Uptown last night
Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen
Uptown Theater, Kansas City, Missouri
March 10, 2016
As Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen took the stage last night, Lovett grinned and made one thing clear: “We’re real friends, not fake, show-business friends.” For the next two and half hours, nothing could have been more clear.
They weren’t playing by typical concert rules. As Lovett told Keen later in the evening, “There’s only one rule in this show: Do what you want.” And so they did, demonstrating that they know each other’s songs as well as they know their own. But the real magic was in the stories told between the songs, and the jokes shared between old friends.
Their comfort levels (and clowning) were apparent from the start. As Keen sat down and got ready to play, he answered Lovett’s quizzical look by chuckling and saying, “Well, I was going to open for you.” He launched into “Gringo Honeymoon,” then promptly put on the brakes and said, “Let’s stop — I want to talk about this song.”
The entire evening went on like that, and while they worked through their favorites (and the crowd’s), the links between the two writers’ music became a theme. When Lovett sang “Family Reserve,” a narrative of mortality as grim and affectionate as Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” Keen answered with “Merry Christmas From the Family,” which for any other songwriter would have been a strange choice this close to St. Patrick’s Day. His song is about people very much alive, and it kicked off a lengthy (and funny) conversation about how their respective families felt about those songs. “They’re concerned,” Lovett admitted, “or they’re just dead.” Keen defended his no-holds-barred portrait by saying, “That was totally a PG version of our Christmas!”
When Keen sang “If I Were a King,” a sweet song that happens to be in 3/4 time, Lovett answered with “Waltzing Fool,” a sad tale about a man who does what he wants in spite of others’ disdain — but only after a conversation about 3/4 time as “the taco of time signatures.” (It made sense in the moment.) When Keen semi-apologetically sang the short song “Our Municipal Airport,” an extremely goofy little tune, Lovett, after a pause, commented, “Let me assure you — that song is not too short.”
The show’s focus on their friendship also revealed a lot about both men. At 60, Keen is the older of the two; in college terms (where their friendship began), Keen was a junior when Lovett was a freshman, and that still seems important. Lovett told stories about how charitable Keen was in college, letting him hang out and listen to his giant bluegrass collection (even when he wasn’t there). If his house got too crowded and Keen needed to work, he went to a hotel room for a few days. Keen was even really nice to his landlord, which shows up in Lovett’s lyrics to “This Old Porch.” Lovett has always made that debt clear. The lyric to one of the evening’s high points, “Record Lady,” begins, Robert Earl is a friend of mine/You know he’s always looking out for my best interests.
And even though Keen is the less subtle of the two (he’s pretty blunt, really), songs like his “Corpus Christi Bay” and “I’m Comin’ Home” show where Lovett learned to craft the kind of heartbreaking lines that make songs like “Nobody Knows Me Like My Baby” so memorable. Lovett, for this evening, seemed to function more as the emcee, but he gladly encouraged Keen’s bottomless tales of Arky’s Silver Dollar Bar in Bandera, Texas, for instance. Keen, for his part, seemed just a little uncomfortable with Lovett’s praises — as any good friend would.
The pair’s avalanche of songs never felt like too much, even though every tune was familiar. There’s an intimacy in a show like this, a wonderful illusion that every member of the audience is part of the conversation and could maybe join in. At one point, Lovett told the story of riding by Keen’s house in 1976 and hearing him and his friends playing music on the porch. Laughing, Lovett recalled, “They invited me to step into the yard and let me listen.”
For a few hours, a packed house, warmly invited, all crammed into that yard.
Gringo Honeymoon (REK)
What Do You Do (LL)
Wireless in Heaven (REK)
Family Reserve (LL)
Merry Christmas from the Family (REK)
If I Were King (REK)
Waltzing Fool (LL)
Our Municipal Airport/Johnny Cash (REK)
Don’t Throw Your Trash on the Road/Don’t Mess With Texas (LL)
Feelin’ Good Again (REK)
Flyswatter/Icewater Blues (LL)
East Virginia Blues (Both)
Record Lady (LL)
No Kinda Dancer (REK)
Give Me Back My Heart (LL)
Something I Do (REK)
Nobody Knows Me Like My Baby (LL)
This Old Porch (Both)
Shades of Gray (REK)
If I Had A Boat (LL)
I’m Comin’ Home (REK)
Rolling By (Both)
Corpus Christi Bay (REK)