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  • Review/Photos: Lovett, Keen, The Birchmere

    In the mid 1980s, I was a reporter at my hometown newspaper in the refinery town of Texas City, Texas, and commuted to school at the University of Houston. For the most part, I worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, although the days often started early and the nights rarely ended before bars closed at 2.

    That meant my opportunities to immerse in Houston’s fertile music scene were limited, but I took every chance to see shows whenever and wherever possible. I found myself putting my limited funds into cassettes I could play in my car on the commute and to pay the relatively small cover fees that most places charged at the time.

    Houston had started to lose a bit of its luster as its more successful artists moved on to Austin and Nashville, but you could always find reliably strong acts at Rockefeller’s and Fitzgerald’s, and folk and acoustic music was played throughout the city.

    On a rare off night, I went to Anderson Fair and Retail Restaurant, a barn-like building on Grant Street in the Montrose district. Lyle Lovett, who would soon release his self-titled debut album, was performing and a classmate had given me a sought-after ticket. (Sought-after because the place held only 75-80 people and required its audience to be quiet when the musicians played.)

    I left that evening a fan, impressed by Lovett’s original songs and not knowing then that the only way you could play at Anderson Fair was if you wrote your own. At the time, I also didn’t know that one of the songs played that night — “The Front Porch Song” — had been co-written by Lovett’s college friend, Robert Earl Keen.

    Cut to last week, more than three decades later, when I saw Keen and Lovett perform in the first of a two-night stop at The BIrchmere in Alexandria, Va. The venue is larger than Anderson Fair, but the emphasis on listening to the musicians’ stories and songs is the same. The performers, in their late 20s when I first saw them, are now in their early 60s.

    Keen and Lovett are road warriors who have toured together on occasion since 2013. (Lovett has his Large Band and also goes out with John Hiatt in a similarly formatted show at least once a year, while Keen is often on the road with his regular band.) But their friendship is so deep that they work without a setlist.

    Dressed in a blazer, jeans and an open shirt, Keen is the more fluid and colorful storyteller, spicing his tales with self-deprecating anecdotes. Lovett, as always, is in dark coat with tie, quick with a dry one-liner and awkwardly drawn out pauses that drew huge laughs from the audience.

    The two met at Texas A&M in 1976. Keen, two years older, lived in a house near campus that Lovett — then a freshman — rode past on his bicycle. Keen, whose background is in bluegrass, would jam with friends on his porch and Lovett, who favors jazz and western swing, soon joined them.

    “Corpus Christi Bay,” Keen’s opener, was accompanied by an anecdote about his brother driving backwards at a Jack-in-the-Box drive thru. Then, after performing his classic, “Merry Christmas from the Family,” he said his mother was offended by the song because of its references to drinking.

    Before singing Guy Clark’s “Texas 1947,” Lovett told a story about opening for the legendary songwriter at the “old Birchmere.” He then talked about the opening act who played when he brought his Large Band to The Birchmere for the first time in 1986. The opener, Mary Chapin Carpenter, signed a record deal that night.

    Midway through the show, Lovett said, “When I reached 50, journalists started asking me the ‘r’ word.”

    “Are you thinking about retiring?” Keen asked. “I’ve been retired all my life.”

    “Then he asked me, ‘How would you like to be remembered?’” Lovett continued. “I said to him, ‘First you were trying to get me to quit. Now you’re trying to kill me off.’ But then I thought about it for a little while. I called the journalist back and said I would like to be remembered as a really good dresser.”

    He then sang “Pants is Overrated.”

    By the end of the two-plus hour show, when they played “The Front Porch Song” just before the encore, you felt like you’d been sitting on the back stoop listening to family members swap stories about days past. Except the “family members” in this case are two of the best songwriters Texas has produced, and the stories served to deepen songs we’ve come to know and love.

    I can’t wait until they come back for another visit.

    This review, along with more photos, also was posted to the Americana Highways website. You can see it  here