Fred Eaglesmith / Robert Earl Keen – Be Here Now (Asheville, NC)
They may come from different parts of the continent and talk with different accents, but as songwriters and performers, Robert Earl Keen and Fred Eaglesmith speak the same language. Whether they’re relating tales of outlaws, losers, dispossessed migrant workers, big hair, and bigger fish, Keen and Eaglesmith share an affinity for the down-and-out and the ability to tell their stories with humor, sympathy and passion.
On a cool, rainy spring evening, both were warmly received at the Be Here Now club in Asheville. This Smoky Mountain town is a refuge for all sorts of fringe types — organic farmers, holistic healers, artists, slackers, aging hippies, displaced surf bums. And its Berkeley-in-the-Bible-Belt vibe seemed to inspire both artists.
Eaglesmith, his voice a bit raw from a long weekend at Merlefest, opened with raucous versions of “Freight Train” and “105”, two songs chock-full of the train and automobile imagery that fuels much of his work. The latter of these twin obsessions/metaphors was explored further in a new one, “Mighty Big Car”, in which he observed: “Elvis had one/So did Hank/They don’t look like money/They look like the bank.” Cleverly written but corny songs such as “White Trash” and “Big Hair” were offset by the heartbreaking “Come On Carmelita” (covered by fellow Canadians the Cowboy Junkies), the chronicle of an Ontario migrant farm worker’s cruelly stifled life under the open skies; and “Lucille”, a bittersweet yet uncloying autobiographical portrait of a May-December romance. “I Like Trains” spoke for itself, and the set closer, “Pontiac”, received a standing ovation that led to the mournful encore, “Alcohol And Pills”. Throughout the set, road-worthy assistance was provided by Willie P. Bennett (mandolin), Ralph Schipper (bass), and that demented Tin Man, Washboard Hank (washboard and kitchen sink).
Keen, far from the fratting crowd he seems to be growing beyond these days (though a few scattered pods bobbed here and there), delivered a well-paced set of mature songs largely unmarred by obnoxious sing-alongs. Opening with two of his best new portraits in failure, “Undone” and “Shades Of Gray”, Keen continued the theme with tales of losers both vicious (Steve Earle’s “Tom Ames’ Prayer”) and beautiful (“Corpus Christi Bay”). The haunting “Mariano” was delivered — and received — with all the quiet gravity it deserves. “Levelland” was turned into a scorching rocker, as lead guitarist Rich Brotherton stretched its horizons to places never quite reached on the album and Keen proved that he was born to sing this James McMurtry gem.
“Gringo Honeymoon” proved, too, to be one of his most durable and evocative songs, with the line about the cowboy running from the DEA resonating with this particular crowd. More novelty-oriented tunes such as “Five Pound Bass” are now clustered mid-point in the set; it was given a Texas-sized swing treatment toward the end, allowing fiddler Bryan Duckworth to stretch his legs. Keen’s brief solo set included “The Front Porch Song”, during which he riffed on the notion that Lyle Lovett wasn’t cool enough to be his roommate in college.
One of the best moments of the night came when Keen and band, in honor of Willie Nelson’s 61st birthday, launched into a letter-perfect rendition of “Three Days”. However, the final encore, a no-juice, fully acoustic version of Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver’s “Live Forever”, quieted even the rowdiest listeners. Pins and jaws were dropping everywhere as the band filed silently offstage.