Robert Earl Keen Takes a Final ACL Bow

Texas songwriting staple signs off with seventh taping

Robert Earl Keen making his final Austin City Limits appearance on Wednesday. (Photo by Gary Miller)

When Robert Earl Keen announced his intention in January to make this summer’s tour his final one, Austin City Limits quickly slotted in the iconic Texas songwriter for the show’s 48th Season. Both Keen and the crowd brought their best for the farewell bow.

Seated out front of his backing quintet – which included Lloyd Maines’ steel supporting longtime members Bill Whitbeck and Tom Van Schaik, and locals Brian Beken on fiddle/guitar and Noah Jeffries picking up some of the heavier acoustic guitar lifting – Keen still flashed his boyish grin at 66 as he took the opportunity to spin through tales and stories introducing the songs. The 15-song setlist (with a quick, enthusiastic encore of “Merry Christmas From the Family”) proved a statement of its own, not simply running through his biggest hits, but winding a career-spanning story that led into the appropriate closing double-shot of “I’m Coming Home” and “I Gotta Go.”

“As a nod to my own retirement, I decided to practice a little bit, so that’s why I got this chair,” Keen acknowledged of his sitting late in hour-and-a-half long live-streamed set. “I got a golf game, I just need a sitting game.” His distinctive nasal tenor likewise keens a bit rougher these days, but in a worn leather way that only seems to add texture to his well-honed songs.

The fully packed Moody Theater delivered a standing ovation at the outset as Keen took the stage. The hometown crowd hit every appropriate shout out moment, reveling in songs that many had grown up with over Keen’s 40 year career that started in Austin. “Feelin’ Good Again” set the perfect opening tone followed by “Gringo Honeymoon” (repeated for the taping so he could introduce the story behind the song) and “For Love.”

I Gotta Go: the crowed at Keen's final ACL taping. (Photo by Gary Miller)

“Let the Music Play,” which he called the unofficial theme song of his “Americana Podcast,” the Levon Helm Midnight Ramble-inspired “The Man Behind the Drums,” the breathless getaway of “Shades of Gray,” picked up the pace and allowed the band to flex. In fact, the full diversity of Keen’s songwriting on display may have been the biggest nod to his immense influence, from the wistful “Corpus Christi Bay” and poignant portrait balladry of “Mariano” to the playful lyrical patter licking easily over “Black Baldy Stallion” and the dark jabs of new song “Sinner Man.” “Dreadful Selfish Crime” provided the early set highlight as the acoustic intro kicked into a bar band soul backbeat.

Still, the crowd predictably held their greatest fervor for “The Road Goes On Forever,” erupting at the opening shot of “Sherry” and stomping and clapping through the entire song enough to rattle the whole theater. The only thing that could have topped the moment was the quick return encore as everyone joined in for “Merry Christmas From the Family.”

Keen plans to keep writing and recording, and no doubt his songs will continue as staples for Texas artists for generations to come, but his final ACL taping offered a moment of appreciation for the songwriter that was as rewarding for his fans as it seemed to be for Keen himself.

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Robert Earl Keen, ACL, Austin City Limits, Bill Whitbeck, Tom Van Schaik, Lloyd Maines, Noah Jeffries

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