Robert Earl Keen to play show in State College
STATE COLLEGE — For legendary Americana artist Robert Earl Keen, “The Road Goes on Forever” is more than just the title of his signature song — those words are also a way of life. After a three-decade career in the music industry that has spawned 19 studio albums, Keen still hits the highway to perform anywhere from 120 to 150 shows per year.
Luckily for local fans, the road will soon be bringing him to Central Pennsylvania, as Keen is set to play a show at 8 p.m. Aug. 18 at the State Theatre. Guest artist Waylon Payne will open the program.
“This one of those things that happens about once every three years, where we go to the right place at the right time,” Keen said. “Getting up to the Northeast at this time of year is a break from the heat. People are out and about in that part of the country, and you always feel like you are going to have some exciting shows with lots of people showing up.
“I am really happy about it,” he added.
Through the years, Keen has charted eight albums on Billboard’s Top 200, and has seen four albums — “Ready for Confetti,” “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions,” “Live Dinner Reunion” and “The Rose Hotel” — land in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk Albums chart. He was also inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012, along with his friend Lyle Lovett and the late Townes Van Zandt.
He credits his longevity in the music industry to the fact that he “never wanted to do anything else.” Keen also mentioned that he has found a nice balance between his life as a performer and his time spent with family, which has also helped him continue his career.
“I have always balanced that, because when I am home it’s all about being with family all the time,” he said. “When I am out on the road, I am really dedicated to performing.”
Since he has always considered himself to be born for the stage, Keen said his time spent making music in front of a live crowd always feels exciting and challenging.
“Sometimes, it is a little bit scary,” Keen said. “Sometimes, you have to zig instead of zag.”
He likened the experience of performing a live show to playing a sport, and said he will often approach a concert like a baseball game.
“Sometimes that is how I will settle myself down,” he said. “I will be on stage and I will think, ‘Wow, it’s only the second inning and nothing is happening right now, but it is fixing to.'”
Keen likes to be alone for about a half-hour prior to hitting the stage. This, he said, allows him to think up a game plan and psych himself up for putting on a great show.
On days that he can, Keen also likes to play guitar for a while prior to performing. That’s a habit he picked up from traditional artist Norman Blake, who he would regularly go see play in his younger days. He said that often times Blake would play his guitar for hours on end before starting up his concerts.
“I took a page from that a little bit,” Keen said.
Because he likes to switch up his setlist from night to night, Keen has “never done two nights in a row with the same set.” Though he always hits the high spots and the songs fans came to hear, he also likes to play a few less popular tunes, some songs that are his personal favorites, and tracks that are challenging for his band.
“I don’t do that sort of thing where it’s like, okay tonight I’m going to just recite my high school poetry and the band is just going to play one chord the whole time,” he said. “I don’t do weird stuff like that.”
Most of the time, Keen doesn’t actually finish up a setlist until around an hour before a show begins. In fact, a lot of times he will wait until after soundcheck before comprising the setlist, to get a better feel for the room. Other times, he will talk to the show’s promoter to see what kind of vibes he can expect from the audience before figuring out which songs to play.
“Sometimes, I don’t factor it in at all and I just think in terms of what I want to play,” Keen said.
The majority of Keen’s performances see him cover songs by some of his favorite artists, like James McMurty and Todd Synder. Every now and then he also throws in songs from country stars like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.
“These are the kind of people that I aspire to be able to write as well as they do,” Keen said. “I think that they are the top of the top. I am actually, in my mind, playing tribute to them and their gift.”
As for his favorite tune to play that he wrote himself, Keen said that would be the eight-minute song “Dreadful Selfish Crime,” off of 1994’s “Gringo Honeymoon” album.
“It has this really good groove, it is pretty long, and it has an outro that is kind of loud and semi- R&B and rock — it’s an electric guitar outro,” he said. “I never get tired of playing that song, and I always feel good when I’m playing it.”
Having performed with most of the core members of his band for upwards of 20 years, Keen said that it’s important to him to always play his shows with a full-band arrangement — and with the same band every night.
“When you come see me, you see this band and you see me,” he said. “What people see in California is the same thing people will see in Pennsylvania.
“I always thought it was only fair to the audience because if someone comes to see you and they like you, they might bring someone else with them next time,” he added. “If they bring somebody else with them next time and you are doing some kind of solo gig, well that just ain’t the same. It might be the same songs, but it’s not the same show whatsoever. I want to present my music in a consistent way.”
With the majority of his life being consumed by the music industry, Keen said that one of the most important things for him at this point is to just keep everything enjoyable.
“The whole thing about playing music, is that it has to be fun,” he said. “You have to keep learning and doing things, and adding those things to your toy box.
“When the fun runs out, as far as I’m concerned, the whole thing runs out and the wheels fall off,” Keen added. “I’m all about continuing to keep it fun and exciting.”