Robert Earl Keen featuring REK Band
If you took the news of Robert Earl Keen’s retirement from touring last year hard, hey, we get it. For the better part of the last four decades, the REK live show experience was a right of passage for multiple generations of Texas music fans — not to mention for thousands of Americana music fans coast to coast who may never have had the chance to see their hero at Gruene Hall or Floore’s Country Store but could still sing along to every word anytime he made it to their own town. And if you were lucky enough to catch Keen and his band at any stop on his farewell tour last summer, the fact they never played better didn’t exactly make things any easier; a back injury may have relegated him to a stool onstage for some of that home stretch, but Keen didn’t cross the finish line wheezing so much as sounding like a performer still very much in his prime.
That was a year ago, and apart from popping up for the stray cameo appearance or fan appreciation event, Keen has stuck hard to his guns about the road actually not going on forever. But the guy never said anything about quitting songwriting or making records, and based on the bounty of good times stuffed into his first post-“retirement” album, Western Chill, the whole “party-never-ends” part of the deal is still in play.
The catch is, that party ain’t exactly cheap. When it was first released back in April, Western Chill was only offered as a deluxe boxed set to the tune of $169 (via www.robertearlkeen.com, with prices varying slightly out in the wild). And at least as of the time of this writing, that’s still the only way to hear it — though according to Keen’s management office, a digital release is likely to happen sometime soonish.
Meanwhile, for the Keen fan willing and able to shell out now, the aforementioned big Chill comes loaded with bells and whistles. In addition to the album on double vinyl, there’s a DVD documenting its making with live-in-the-studio performances of every song, a song book with lyrics and music, and even a graphic novel following the adventures of a Keen-ish-looking troubadour and his canine sidekick driving back and forth across Texas, battling the forces of writer’s block. It’s all packed into a handsome box hefty enough to break your foot or flatten a five-pound bass.
The comic makes for a fun read or two, and your mileage may vary with the video and songbook. But it’s the 14-track album itself — be it on vinyl or whatever other format it finds itself on down the line — that of course warrants the most attention. For all of its fancy packaging, the easy, loping Western Chill doesn’t sound anything at all like a pull-out-all-the-stops last hurrah, and that’s because it was never meant to be Keen’s last record and, at least according to the artist himself, still won’t be. It was tracked back in 2020, when Keen called his full band — bassist Bill Whitbeck, fiddle player Brian Beken, mandolinist Kym Warner, and drummer Tom Van Schaik — out to his “Snake Barn” shed in Medina, Texas, just to give them all an opportunity to play together during lockdown. Those quarantine jam sessions quickly turned into recording sessions, though Keen made it clear early on that the album they were making wasn’t going to be business as usual. Using his freshly written title track as the theme-setting bellwether, he asked the others to contribute songs of their own to the project — and to sing them, too. Hence the “featuring REK Band” tag under Keen’s own name on the cover.
To be clear, Western Chill is still unmistakably a Robert Earl Keen record. But with the boss yielding the mic to Whitbeck for three songs (“Bluelight,” “Mr. Mockingbird” and “Bone and Flower”) and Beken for two (“Waves” and “The City”) — and with Warner taking the spotlight on his own instrumental, “Hey Stranger” — it’s a Keen album unlike anything else in his 39-year recording career. And not surprisingly, at first listen even the most open-minded of fans might find the ratio a little jarring, especially after hearing Keen himself singing on just three of the first seven songs.
But play it all the way through a couple of times, and the payoff is ultimately as rewarding as the timeshare gesture was diplomatic and creatively sound from the get-go. West Texas scenery (think Lubbock, Marfa and Balmorhea) permeates the album, and by design every song here, no matter the writer, feels of a piece with the overall laid-back, reflective vibe, with the three different voices lending it just enough texture and flair as to stand out not just as a truly collaborative band effort, but as the kind of record The Band used to make. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Whitbeck (an REK Band member going back to 1995), Beken (formerly of Milkdrive and the South Austin Jug Band) and Warner (the Greencards) are all seasoned songwriters in their own right, not to mention that Whitbeck and Beken are both fine singers, too. Their more conventionally pleasant voices provide an objectively sweeter-on-the-ears counterpoint to Keen’s nasally rasp, an instrument as distinctive and expressive as any in Americana or rock but one that’s never been remotely, well, “dulcet.”
As a songwriter, though, Keen has long been one of the best in the business, and the handful of new originals here from his own pen are all very much up to par, especially those showcasing his patented knack for wry humor — like the winking nod to a key scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou in the title track and playful lines like “Paint our mailbox yellow / Tell the world to go to hell-o” in the escapist fantasy of “Balmorhea.” It’s in no small part to Keen’s credit as creative director and co-producer (with Beken) that each of the other members’ contributions hold their own against that high standard, too — in particular Beken’s bittersweet “Waves” and Whitbeck’s “Bluelight,” an exquisitely rendered portrait of a hungry young songwriter dutifully chipping away at her proverbial first 10,000 hours. Logging 500 miles from Houston to Lubbock in a day just to play a gig may be but a drop in the bucket compared to the long road Keen and Company all travelled on to their hard-earned rest on Western Chill, but everyone in it for the sake of the song and for the long haul has to start somewhere.