Earlier this month, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen performed for the inaugural show at Preservation Hall West at The Chapel in San Francisco.
Preservation Hall West is a collaboration between Ben Jaffe, creative director for New Orleans’ home of traditional jazz, Preservation Hall, and Bay Area real estate developer and restaurateur Jack Knowles.
Keen, who’s appearing tonight, Oct. 26, at the Varsity Theatre, joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on stage in San Francisco’s new Mission District music venue on Oct. 4. They performed “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” a song popularized by New Orleans’ Louis Prima; Keen’s own “I Gotta Go”; a classic hymn often played at jazz funerals in New Orleans, “I’ll Fly Away”; and an impromptu “When the Saints Go Marching In” during the encore.
“It was fantastic,” Keen said from his home in Kerrville, Texas. “It’s a great room. I never had done anything with those Preservation Hall guys before, so that was a highlight for me.”
Keen may seem an unusual choice for opening night at Preservation Hall West, but he performs in the Bay Area often and his multiple connections there got him the gig.
“I guess they all said here’s someone who’s available and would be good for this,” Keen said. “They called me about a month before about doing it. I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ The way I look at it, there’s your regular shows, your money shows and your sexy shows. This is what I call a sexy show. I was happy to do it because we’ve been working our fingers to the bone this year and haven’t had as many sexy shows as in years past.”
The Varsity Theatre, a regular stop for Keen and his band, is another venue he loves to play.
“I like that room, and the people, particularly, they’re out of the ordinary as far as their enthusiasm level,” he said. “We’ve never gone there and not been enthusiastically welcomed.”
Houston native Keen composed his first song at age 8 without the aid of an instrument. He wrote poetry in high school and, although he didn’t pick up a guitar until his senior year, found that combining words and music came easily to him. “It was just a natural fit,” he said. “And when I went to see musicians in Houston or Austin or College Station, it made all the sense in the world to me that I could do what they were doing. I had the writing part down, but I needed to work on the musicianship.”
After graduating from Texas A&M University with an English degree, Keen moved ASAP to Austin to follow his music dream.
“I banged on people’s doors and said, ‘Hey, I got a PA system. I can play in your place.’ I talked these people into letting me play. I did every open mic. It never stopped.”
Keen built his reputation, playing the roadhouse circuit and releasing albums of his original songs. Other singers recorded his songs, too, including big names George Strait, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett and the Dixie Chicks.
His career having begun with writing verses, Keen still builds songs from the words up.
“I work on the music and I love it, but it’s always the words that do it for me.”
Following upcoming shows in Baton Rouge, Flatonia, Texas, and Key West, Fla., Keen will go to the cabin retreat he calls the Scriptorium to concentrate on creating new songs.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for,” he said. “But I do want something that is all my own. It might be just a fantasy for me, but I feel like there’s a certain thing that I’ve never really touched on yet. It has to do with how the words fit with the music.”