Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Robert Earl Keen, Jr. Sense of Irony

By Douglas McDaniel

It goes this way: When a boy becomes a man in his twenties, he’s really just becoming a happier boy. In his thirties, certain once inert chemicals disperse in his brain causing him to wonder where that happy boy went. Then, in his forties, when the result of those energies are unleashed, when he’s finally determined that life is nothing but a bitch; when he’s reflecting on that all: Well then, he’s ready to become a regular Robert Earl Keen, Jr.
The Kerrville, Texas-based singer/songwriter’s productive cycle appears to be in that period when all of the trouble is finally being appreciated and the man finally settles down to a kind of childlike contentment, too.
For example, this fall, a new release will arrive that exemplifies his standing in the music community at the age of 52. In January, numerous artists converged at the MusicFest at Steamboat Springs to honor Keen, performing interpretations of Keen’s influential material at the popular festival’s annual Tribute to a Legend gala. The recording, “Live Is Good,” is slated for release by Right Avenue Records. In addition to performances by the full electric band backing Keen, it includes acoustic tribute performances by Cody Canada, Cory Morrow, Chris Knight, Jason Boland, Stoney LaRue, Bonnie Bishop, Reckless Kelly, Wade Bowen, Max Stalling, Micky, Gary, and Muzzie Braun, Walt Wilkins, Randy Rogers, Roger Creager, Matt Powell, Brandon Rhyder, Dub Miller, Doug Moreland, Matt Skinner, Kathleen Braun, Josh Grider, Darren Kozelsky, and Rich O’Toole.
But at the base of a curve of his mid-period career, in 1997, he made a small hit out of the song, “Over the Waterfall,” helping (with Lyle Lovett, Nancy Griffith and Ryan Adams, who was with Whiskeytown at the time) to practically invent a style of alt-country for the radio dial, with a line that goes: “The beauty of sadness is feeling the pain.” At that point Keen had gained ground in the creative sphere because of the sadness he found in his late thirties, early forties, with a song that began with the lines:

I slipped through your fingers
into the clouds
Ran down the concrete hallways
Pushed through the crowds.
I watched by the water
Reached for the sun
Why did I bother
What's done is done

Then, the chorus:

And all that's left of me now
Is waiting to drown
Over the waterfall (falling down)

Now, there’s a mandolin solo pushing “Waterfall” along to it’s over-the-edge apogee of intended sorrow.
Because that riff, and those lines, reveal Keen in a nutshell: Finding the beauty in the pain revealed by a singer/songwriter who, at his best, has a penchant for serving up his lyricism on a very tough hook. Rendered almost journalistically deadpan. As just a passing observation.
Indeed, a major exegesis could be written about that Keen standard, recorded at the age of 34, “The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends,” in which we find the protagonist, a waitress, Sherry, who gets the guy, Sonny, to drive her to Florida. The man finds the trouble, sure, but the woman ends up with all of the money, and her boyfriend goes to jail for a crime he, apparently, did not commit. Clearly, in this case, Keen’s English and journalism courses at Texas A&M were time well spent.
Cast within its small town savvy and strength of storytelling, its characters fully evolve into fully traveling denizens of the road. In terms of its hook about the party never ending, on all sides giving it new meaning each time the chorus is sung, ending the story with a Keen sense of irony, he is saying something else entirely.
Yes, a good part of his best creative period was spent likely musing on the most heartbreaking truths. There’s a dark sarcasm at work in “Party Never Ends.” Must be why he’s so tight with the college crowd staring into the abyss of the futureworld.
A decade ago, around age of 42, a little after the album “Picnic” was opening the door for his best work of those years to be recognized, he told Rolling Stone magazine, “I fight being jaded all the time. I love music -- all of my best memories have to do with musical experiences. But at the same time, I see people say things that they're going to do with their career, or hear them say they're going to tell people that it's going to be this way, and I want to just jump out and say, 'Don't do that! You're cutting your own throat! They're not going to listen to you, you're not going to change the world, you've got to work with it.' And that's where you get jaded -- you find out you don't change the world, you have to work within the world that you're walking in.”
Just trying to get a grip on Robert Earl Keen’s musical output here. And it often points to a sense of loss, and thus, rebirth. Because the road doesn’t go on forever. The party does end, and sure, that’s the beauty of feeling the pain. But an over-50s folk hero really is something to be.


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New Media to Shred: Rose Hill Drive's 'Moon is the New Earth'

Rose Hill Drive
Moon is the New Earth
(Megaforce Records)

... In which one of Boulder's best-known bands moves further out of orbit, ever closer to Mars, finding reasonable rent on the lit side of the Moon. The new release finds the power-trio breaking out with a bigger, thicker, perhaps even dirtier guitar-based sound. The first track, "Sneak Out," reminds me of Fleetwood Mac's classic bust out rocker, "Oh Well," but since nobody asked why I thought of that, tis better to say "A Better Way" is a better indicator of what has been achieved in Boulder's Coupe Studios: post-Pearl Jam space romps, with glassy low-register vocals, high-flyin' riffs. Muddy in all of the right places and guitar solos tending toward short sprints, rather than long hikes, this is a much bigger sound than what I remember from a Telluride gig for the band a couple of years ago. Lots of smart dissonance here, too. "The 8th Wonder," with its heavy distortion and bits of arabesque, then a lunar launch. A nice arching finale at song 12, "Always Waiting" makes for a document round and whole. Yeah, it all works. Best tracks for a single, or radio, or satellite, or wherever music gets popularized these days: the more acoustic, catchy "One Night Stand; or, "Do You Wanna Get High?", because yeah, after listening to this, I do.
-- Douglas McDaniel

1 Giant Leap for Mankind

A decade ago global multimedia convergence was merely a moon shot business paradigm, an open-ended concept flying right off the edge of the known world. For the machine mind, lacking the bandwidth to make all human expression available to the consuming audience, it was like an oversized Great Pumpkin being push through a hand-cranked meat grinder. It was only for a fortunate elite of prosumer guinea pig geeks who cared to spend five grand for a PC on steroids, usually the type of people who were featured wizards for Wired Magazine or who freelanced data crunching modules for the NSA, who could manage to collect RAM like speed-obsessed silver speculators.
Now, though, it’s common to find art instigators using their machines as magical wands for producing intelligent life. Almost every conceivable type of performance is rendered handy through a laptop as cumbersome as a coffee-table book with more amped-up power than the first Apollo missions, which spits out and picks up all of this thrilling cultural stream from out of the thin air.
Your mileage for all of this techgnosis may vary.
1 Giant Leap’s mileage just happens to be limitless. Just as long as the duo, consisting of Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman, doesn’t mind going in circles, globally. Taking this step for mankind to another advanced conclusion, they’ve managed to move a convergent media franchise forward for undeterred post-pop positivism. The kind that spawns a globe-trotting travelogue to reach medicine men, movie stars, progressive thinkers, artisans, singers, rappers, poets, authors, philosophers, pretty much anyone with a great creative vibe. They turn all of this gaia stuff into movies and world music-goes-ambient CDs, all to be broadcast on every conceivable medium, all of it to a great, dancing beat.
For you hardline lefties out there ready to dismiss 1 Giant Leap’s one-hundred-beat per minute drive to soak up the world’s cultural zeitgeist, their second film and CD release, “What About Me?,” can hardly be accused of typical imperial Brit appropriatin’. It’s more like 1 Giant Leap offers the world its rhythms, asking the whole planet to appropriate them.
As Catto said recently, “We have an amazing network of people who we think are stunningly talented and we hook them up with other people that are stunningly talented to get cool people working together.”
1 Giant Leap is, is nothing else, is an observance on how film and music are both sold at the same bazaar in the global village square.
Catto, 40, has for a couple of decades honed his skills as one of the founding members and ballad singer of Faithless, a music group from the same collaborative generation as Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers. After the singer/songwriter became the art director and video director for the band, he left in 1999 to form 1 Giant Leap as a project. In doing so, it formed out of his own chaotic collection of skills as photographer, script editor and arteur catalyst a perfect Coke bottle for inviting the world to sing.
There's no discrimination between art and entertainment, nor need to disenfranchise anything. What you end up with, in “What About Me?” is an audiovisual project bringing together performers and thinkers from around the world. The effect on the screen bombards your singed-globe sensibilities in much the same style as “What the (Bleep) Do We Know?”
Reached for a brief chat amid the creative chaos of his life by the telly from London, Catto seemed to both like and distance himself from that caparison, saying, “It feels good that (What the Bleep) did well, but it wouldn’t do to say they influenced us. More like, it was the other way around.”
The first film by Catto and Bridgeman, an experienced director and producer with such film credits as “Bulletproof Mask” and “Lady in the Water, was called “1 Giant Leap.” Nominated from a Grammy, the film and album/DVD was recorded on a six-month trip around the world and includes musical and spoken-word contributions from Michael Stipe, Kurt Vonnegut, Dennis Hopper, Brian Eno, Baaba Maal, Tom Robbins and Arrested Development, among others.
But if combining Stipe for a song with Asha Bhosle, or Eddi Reader with the Mahotella Queens and Revetti Sakalar, might seem a tad complex, they are pretty Thoreau in the simplicity of their approach. Their chief items in the travel bag: The laptop and video camera.
“When you walk into some village in Africa, we don’t have a have a 16-member crew, which certainly makes it easier to get around,” he says. “To keep it low key is really useful. So we have a three-member crew. That includes two men and one woman.”
Having a woman on the team gives the group more access, he says. “People trust women more, I think.”
In Britain, the band makes its initial tracks to sing to with a 10-piece band, and then spreads the quantum vibe outward from there.
“We are just trying to put together the most inspiring people, the most inspiring singers ... the most inspiring everything that can be made.”

-- Douglas McDaniel

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