At a glance, Robert Earl Keen and Kasey Chambers don’t have a lot in common. Not gender, obviously. Not nationality (she’s Australian, he’s from the Lone Star Republic). Not age, either; Keen, who’s now 45, is part of the generation of singer-songwriters the 24-year-old Chambers grew up listening to.
But listen to their most recent releases — Keen’s 1998 disc Walking Distance and Chambers’ 2000 solo debut The Captain — and you find plenty of common ground. It’s not just the mixture of dusty folk ballads and sassy country rock (although Chambers is folkier and Keen, recently anyway, is grimmer). There’s also a shared sense of movement, of traveling one way or another to get away from something or to find something or just to keep going. Keen has described Walking Distance as a song cycle about the whole idea of “the sound of one’s own footsteps.” Chambers, who grew up nomadically in the Outback with her traveling musician parents, peppers The Captain with songs about staying in motion or longing to leave.
So it makes sense they would hook up on the road. The Knoxville show was one of a handful Chambers opened for Keen on his seemingly never-ending tour. The art deco Tennessee Theatre was respectably packed with Keen’s devotees — shitkickin’ frat boys in baseball caps and khakis, middle-aged outlaws who have settled down and had to hire a babysitter for the night, everybody a little bit drunk but no one throwing punches.
Chambers got their attention early and held it easily through her too-short set. With her brother Nash on bass and father Bill on lead guitar, she had the casual grace of someone who grew up onstage. Most of The Captain got an airing, along with some unexpected covers (her heartbreaking take on Fred Eaglesmith’s “Water In The Fuel” was a highlight).
The acoustics didn’t really do justice to the richness of Chambers’ voice, emphasizing the high twang at the expense of her throat-catching raspiness. But she went over fine anyway, charging through “You Got The Car”, charming through “This Flower”, and winding it all up with the album’s closing ass-kicker, “We’re All Gonna Die Someday”. As long as she has that voice and those songs, Chambers can share the spotlight with just about anyone.
It was Keen’s night, though. Ambling out to the obligatory obsessive chants of “Robert Earl Keen! Robert Earl Keen!”, he flashed a grin and led his longtime band through a rollicking set that should reassure anyone who thought Walking Distance represented some kind of retreat into moody contemplation.
He sang the slow ones, but it was the fast ones that stuck — “Feelin’ Good Again”, “New Life In Old Mexico”, “I’m Goin’ To Town” — and he’s still not afraid to be funny. He nonchalantly introduced the calendrical nonsequitur “Merry Christmas From The Family” by noting, “Well, since it’s the holiday season…” And the yahoos in particular hollered along with “Copenhagen”.
The concertgoes was not only on their feet for most of the show, they were dancing — an activity not exactly encouraged by the narrow, arcing rows of fixed seats at the Tennessee Theatre. The encore of “The Road Goes On Forever” was a foregone conclusion, but even at that, the song still packs a wallop. It may be because roads are one thing Keen knows and, after all these years, still loves.