[14 April 2009]
The trouble with most tribute albums is that the original artists being heralded usually perform their songs better than those interpreting them in appreciation. Think about it. How many tribute discs do you actually prefer over the originals? I can think of a few examples. Okay, maybe one: the If I Were a Carpenter CD. There are isolated songs on other records—Bruce Springsteen covering “Vigilante Man” on the Woody Guthrie disc; Caetano Veloso’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Dreamland” on the disc honoring her—but these are exceptions.
And there are a whole lot of bad tribute discs (remember Instant Karma, a disc meant to honor John Lennon and raise money for Darfur that stunk so badly it made you dislike the former Beatle and shy away from a good cause?). So what’s an artist to do? Van Morrison dealt with it by producing his own tribute album, No Prima Donna, and actively involved himself in choosing the songs and artists who performed them (and even putting a picture of his girlfriend on the album cover). This helped a little, but the record still included such listen-to-once-is-enough moments as Liam Neeson doing “Coney Island”.
Well, Texas singer songwriter Robert Earl Keen is certainly worth honoring. He has written a number of great songs during the past 25 years, and inspired many musicians and fans with his high energy live shows. More than a dozen young Texas artists and others got together to honor him in concert on the 20th anniversary of his classic ode to hard partying, “The Road Goes on Forever”, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the non-profit educational Center for Texas Music History. But Keen’s no fool. He knew the only way to ensure the resulting tribute disc wouldn’t suck was to sing on it himself. Keen performs the last five of the 27 tracks, and includes a brand new song (“Goodbye Cleveland”) for his fans to possess.
While there is not a single song of the other 22 cuts that Keen doesn’t do better on his own records, there are some good covers. Most of the artists perform the tracks in ways that mimic Keen so as not to mess the songs up. Reckless Kelly’s “Think It Over One More Time”, Cross Canadian Ragweed’s Cody Canada’s “Shades of Gray”, and Chris Knight’s “Undone” follow this strategy to good advantage. This makes sense, because the songs are so good on their own that these musicians look good just putting them forward and staying out of the way.
Lesser-known artists handle some of the more famous Keen compositions and perform them with appropriate reverence. Robert Creager’s “I Would Change My Life”, Jason Boland’s “Mariano”, and Rich O’ Toole’s “Love’s a Word I Never Throw Around” are sung with an appropriate hush in their voices to let the lyrical poetry of the verses shine through. These are truly great songs, and these guys know it.
There are some other special moments. Dub Miller offers some good old story telling on his version of “Front Porch Song” that puts the song in context of how and when Keen wrote it and the principals involved. Now if only Lyle Lovett, Keen’s roommate and co-writer, were there to explicate events, but Miller does a good enough job. And the few songs sung by women, such as Kathleen Braun’s “Coming Home to You” and Bonnie Bishop’s “Not a Drop of Rain”, show what happens when the works of a sensitive male singer-songwriter are performed by the opposite sex. What makes a man sound soulful can make a woman sound weak by giving in to the needs of a mate. That’s not a knock on the material or the musicians, but reveals how words like “compromise” and “coming home” mean different things when placed in other contexts.
This disc would serve as a good introduction for those not familiar with Keen, and fans might enjoy hearing new versions their old favorites. However, there is really nothing new here, with the exception of “Goodbye Cleveland”. This one song isn’t worth the price of the disc, and neither are the other four live Keen tracks. He’s done those songs, including the legendary “The Road Goes on Forever”, better elsewhere.
It’s not nice to knock a tribute album to an artist one likes made for charity by other musicians who also love him. So don’t consider this a slam. Buy it if you are curious about Keen or these cover versions, and know that the money will go to a good cause. There’s plenty to enjoy here. But if you really want to know what makes Keen so great, buy some of his other discs as well.