Two decades after the release of his No. 2 Live Dinner, beloved songwriter Robert Earl Keen follows up with a sequel of sorts to the live album.
Twenty-one years ago, Robert Earl Keen, his band, and a few musician buddies played the John T. Floore Country Store, the legendary Texas dance hall and café, and rolled tape on the set. He released the recording (along with a pair of songs recorded elsewhere) in 1996 as No. 2 Live Dinner, and it went on to become one of the storytelling troubadour’s most beloved and best-selling albums.
To mark the occasion, Keen invited old and new friends to play the venue again, with Reckless Kelly and Cody Canada and the Departed playing opening sets. And, once again, Keen recorded the set.
Keen talked to us a bit about the new live record, Live Dinner Reunion, saying he hadn’t initially planned to have a 20th-anniversary sequel to No. 2 Live Dinner.
“We had just an outpouring and celebration of friendship and music,” Keen says of the Floore gig. “It was a really, really good show, and we recorded it. The whole idea behind recording it was, I just wanted to have it. And as the year progressed, I listened to it and thought there was some stuff that was worthwhile and people might like.”
Guests on Live Dinner Reunion include his friend, former roommate, and frequent collaborator Lyle Lovett on a few songs, naturally, along with Joe Ely, Bruce Robison, Cody Canada, and Cody Braun.
There’s not much overlap between Live Dinner Reunion and No. 2 Live Dinner. “I didn’t want to just repeat the process,” Keen says. But he does revisit a few of his best-known songs, including “Gringo Honeymoon,” “No Kinda Dancer,” “Merry Christmas From the Family” (spelled “Fam-O-Lee” on the new album to reflect his Houston drawl), and his version of Terry Allen’s “Amarillo Highway.” And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Robert Earl Keen show without “The Road Goes On Forever.” This time, though, the Floore audience got the added bonus of Ely joining him for the song.
Among the new songs are “Feelin’ Good Again,” “Shades of Gray,” Lovett’s “T for Texas,” and three songs from Keen's most recent studio record, 2015’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.
Keen says he has been experimenting with “abbreviated songs,” often simply one verse and one chorus or even less. He calls them “short songs for a short-attention-span culture.” None of them made their way onto the new record, though.
“I remember being very concerned that night about making sure that all my friends and family were taken care of, so I wasn’t doing a lot of goofing around,” he says. “I was doing a lot of explaining. I played a lot of songs, but I also did a lot of emceeing, because I brought a lot of people to sing with me or sing these songs.”
Keen says the new album reflects his band’s bigger sound. Fittingly, it’s a bigger album itself, stretching across two discs to accommodate its 26 tracks.
Keen, who calls the outdoor venue “almost timeless,” said the Live Dinner Reunion show had the same intimate, celebratory feel as the one that made its way onto Live No. 2 Dinner, though the crowd was bigger this time around. “It was almost like a family reunion,” he says. Or perhaps that should be “fam-o-lee reunion.”
Live Dinner Reunion will be released November 18 on Dualtone Records. Visit his website for more information, and read more about Keen in our November/December 2016 issue.