Remembering the Coming Back: Robert Earl Keen’s Live Dinner Reunion

Robert Earl Keen’s best song performed live, but never released, is “Wrong Again.” It appeared in encores at live shows throughout the late ‘90s, but for some reason faded from the set lists several years ago.

One of the best songs Robert Earl Keen did record, “The Front Porch Song,” was on his second release, titled The Live Album, which came out in 1988. “Porch” has been played often at shows, but never included in subsequent “best of” or live collections. The song offers a great snapshot in time capturing life and a location at Texas A&M where Keen and roommate Lyle Lovett played guitar and skipped class.

Nearly 30 years after its original release, Keen corrected previous omissions. “Porch” was recorded live recently with Lovett for Keen’s 2-CD Live Dinner Reunion, a Dualtone record scheduled for release November 18. As a result, I need to reverse my all-time Keen song rankings.

Like Keen, I was “Wrong Again.”

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“Porch,” in its latest incarnation, is now Keen’s greatest recorded work, with Aggie classmate Lovett earning partial credit. Over the past year or so, the two have been touring together, virtually bringing the audience to the fabled porch that the song made famous. Their collaboration on Reunion reinvented “Porch” and placed it at a new elevation.

Reunion was recorded to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Keen’s best-known album, Live No. 2 Dinner. Even if the rest of Reunion’s 25 tracks offered nothing of value, “This Old Porch,” as it is titled on Reunion, makes the anniversary collection worth the purchase.

Fortunately, the rest of the album is nearly as enjoyable as being at the show itself.

If you didn’t grow up in the southern part of the state, it’s probable you didn’t know the first thing about Agua Dulce, Texas. The first verse in “Porch” changed that, even for unaware Lone Star State natives. Other lyrics in the song depicted life in small towns throughout the state, including the enchiladas available at Bryan’s historic LaSalle Hotel. The Reunion version of “Porch” recorded Keen and Lovett weaving harmonies together in a way previously not heard. It’s not just the altered tempo that makes the song special, though. Keen and Lovett together simply bring a sum to this recording that is greater than their parts.

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The other couple of hours of entertainment on Reunion take the listener into George T. Floore’s Country Store, where No. 2 Dinner and Reunion were both recorded. The word “entertainment” in lieu of “music” is used deliberately, as the yarns spun between Keen and his assembly of guest musicians give the listener background to songs and other banter they have come to expect at live Keen shows.

An iconic backdrop in Helotes, Texas, Floore’s has been as much a destination for Texas troubadours as Gruene Hall, Luckenbach or Billy Bob’s, Texas. Elvis played there, as have the usual roster of icons that proud dancehalls like to tout: Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Earnest Tubb. Now, Cody Canada, Bruce Robison, Joe Ely, Cody Braun, Cory Morrow and Lovett join Keen on Reunion.

Keen plays Floore’s every year, but never with this collection of talent. In the early ‘90s, when his music was gaining a following, Keen recalled finally landing a show at Floore’s. He joked that they put him on stage first on a Sunday – a more “family friendly” night. Reunion may have taken him back to those early shows, given the generations of fans who came from “nearly all 50 states” to be among the 5,000 in the crowd for the recording of the album.

“It was a really great night,” Keen said. “I’m sure a lot of people will like it. It’s a good cross section of my songs and my friends singing my songs. For instance, Bruce sang ‘No Kinda Dancer,’ and Cory sang ‘I’ll Go On Downtown.’”

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Other collaborations include “Wild Wind” with Braun of Reckless Kelly. Canada joined Keen on “Lonely Feeling.” Early songs from Keen’s younger albums like West Textures and Bigger Piece of Sky are paired with bluegrass cuts off his most recent release, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions. Two acclaimed bluegrass musicians, Kym Warner and Brian Beken, who played on Prisoner, also joined the band along with Keen’s longtime guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik and steel guitar player Marty Muse.

Bryan Duckworth, a fiddle player, Keen band member from the earlier half of his career, and Keen’s best friend since third grade returns with Keen’s original drummer Mark Paterson to cover the Bob Wills favorite “Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas,” first written by Louis Armstrong.

Keen turned the lead over to Ely to close the reunion, fittingly with his signature tune “The Road Goes On Forever.” Ely covered Keen’s classic on his 1992 album Love and Danger, as did Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson DBA the Highwaymen, a story made famous 20 years ago on the Dinner recording.

As the live collection closed, Ely took a moment to convey what 20 years of fans have wanted to say.

“Thank you,” Ely said to Keen, “for writing that song.”

He was speaking for the 5,000 in attendance for Reunion’s recording as well as the millions who have enjoyed Keen’s music over the years. He was also speaking for himself and other singers who have made a version of “Road” their own.