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[whitespace] He'll Never Walk Alone

It was a little bit of a shock to see Robert Earl Keen take the stage at his "solo" show Sunday night at the Rio with ... his band. That's one densely populated solo show! OK, so what it really was was Robert Earl Keen acoustic, and it got me thinking about why Keen so prefers the band setup now, to the point of completely shunning the guy-with-a-guitar shtick that originally made his reputation.

The answer, though, seemed pretty obvious when they broke into the lush, layered texture of "Feelin' Good Again." Can you really play that song all by your lonesome? Would you really want to? Rich Brotherton's guitar and Bill Whitbeck's bass are what give it its haunted, shimmery sound (along with the otherwordly mandolin of the no-longer-touring Bryan Duckworth). And would you want to hear "Wild Wind Blows"--which is, by the way, all the proof anyone should need that Keen is still writing some of his best songs twentysomething years into his career--without Whitbeck and Brotherton's Incredible, Full-Neck-Extension Backup Harmonies? I think not.

Anyway, Keen's ever-increasing musical sophistication seemed to be kind of a theme for the weekend. On Saturday night at the Catalyst he pulled off a few great new songs and some surprising versions of old favorites, including an ethereal take on "Dreadful Selfish Crime" that manages to completely invent the song, and a moving, keyed-down opening to "The Road Goes On Forever." Similarly, Sunday's acoustic "I'm Comin' Home" was raining notes, adding even more depth to a song that--around here at least--is uniquely meaningful.

It was damned good to have Keen back again. And if you saw Snazzy promoter John Sandidge's little prank at the Catalyst Saturday, you know what Keen was talking about at the end of the night Sunday when he said: "Well, at least Sleepy John kept his ass in his pants this time."

Steve Palopoli

B.Y.O.E. (Bring Your Own Earplugs)

The thing about playing small venues is that a little amplification goes a long way. But lots of decibels in a place like the Mediterranean, where the Highway Murderers and The Gales played last Thursday night, can lead to some interesting ear-exploding possibilities. "The Highway Murders are gonna fuckin' murder you!" screamed an enthusiastic fan into a stray microphone. At first I thought he was joking, but then I felt the chainsaw of guitars and screaming vocals enter my brain via the ear canal, and thought that my days might indeed be numbered. Despite their name, The Gales (formerly known as The Red Lights of Mergatroid) came on soft and shoegazerly melodic, but didn't waste a lot of time before unleashing a wall of wounded sound into the club, wrapping up with an excellent version of the Cure's "Standing on a Beach." The Masta Plan shredded its way through a set of hesher guitar anthems at the Aptos Club, made more than palatable by screaming female vocals, big, rumbling bass lines and ex-Exploding Crustaceans drummer Chris G. tearing it up in back. Aptly enough, they finished with a faithfully flawed cover of "Master of Puppets."

Mike Connor

Burning Man, Revisited

Not that I've ever actually been, but with all the good vibes and painted faces dancing like spirits in the shadows of Sound Tribe Sector 9, I feel like I got a taste of what it must be like. Granted, it was merely an ashen cinder compared to the megaton scale of Burning Man, but it was still a pretty great show. The stage was done up with more flowers and pretty things than I've ever seen at a Catalyst show, and the trippy lights made the venue look more like a rave than I've ever seen. STS9 are a electronica/jam band fusion and they really do know how to keep the dance floor alive and moving. They also had a guy onstage painting, and I happened to discover a happy little fellow tapping away on a typewriter behind a very large speaker. I don't know what ever became of what he wrote, but seeing him there made me reconsider ever stepping foot into an office again.

Mike Connor

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From the December 11-18, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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