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Robert Earl Keen/Various Artists
Undone: A Musicfest Tribute to Robert Earl Keen
Right Ave. Records
www.robertearlkeen.com


The idea of a tribute record to one of, in my opinion, the finest songwriters of the modern day, recorded live at Musicfest, seems like a wonderful idea. A group of folks taking the stage on a January night in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to sing their favorite Robert Earl Keen songs couldn't be too bad, I reasoned… These are, after all, some of my favorite songs of all time. The songs stand up to being played in a mostly acoustic setting, sometimes revealing more depth and clarity than they did in their previously recorded or full-band versions.

Reckless Kelly starts the double album off with a rousing cover of the energetic "Think It Over One Time", preserving the energy that REK himself brings to the tune, but lending it a more bluegrassy and front-porch flavor. Then the string of acoustic/solo performances begins. Although these songs are tremendous, sometimes they do not translate well into the voices of other singers that lack a bit of the power and personal inflection that Keen puts into his songs when he performs them. Tracks like "What I Really Mean" lose a bit of their power when performed solo acoustic (although the absence of the soprano saxophone is kind of welcome) although that track does obtain a certain reflective pensiveness that more than likely reflects REK's state in writing the track. There are songs presented here that gain an entirely new insight and personal power because the band is stripped away and the song is presented in it's barest and most naked of forms - acoustic guitar and vocal. While I would love to hear Keen sing a few of these tracks this way himself, this seems to be a viable alternative. Roger Creager turns in a great performance of "I Would Change My Life" that simply stuns in its depth and reflective power. The amazing "Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight" is ably performed by Josh Grider, while Dub Miller churns out a great version of "Front Porch Song" assisted by Matt Skinner on guitar and Doug Moreland on fiddle; telling his own story to accompany the song, Miller involves the audience and does great justice to the track. Chris Knight's version of "Undone" makes the song sound more like a Steve Earle track, imbuing it with a gruffness that enhances the song, and Rich O'Toole does a very nice job with one of the greatest songs of all time, "Love's A Word I Never Throw Around".

Where Undone really shines is at the end of the night when Robert Keen himself takes the stage with his band and plays a few songs. Keen kicks out the jams on a blistering version of "Wild Wind" before the band kicks in a drum machine (?!) and loose groove on "Dreadful Selfish Crime". A laid-back, folky version of "Goodbye Cleveland" leads into a rocking version of "For Love" and a stunning take on "The Road Goes On Forever".

Take a few minutes, or hours, to sit and enjoy the music of Robert Earl Keen as sung by a group of folks who obviously love his songs as much as you and I. You are sure to find some meaning in the songs that you'd never picked up before, or discover a new artist from which you'll want to hear more. Tribute records are great that way… perspectives change, and maybe there's a treasure here for you that will change your life. And hey, any live REK performance is always worth having around.

-Embo Blake

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