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Keen to Play

Now out of school, 19-year-old Matt Keen to kick off his music career as an opening act at the Festival at Sandpoint

“The first time I met Matt Keen, he was sitting on a picnic table, playing guitar and singing a Ray Charles song. I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. There was such joy and energy coming out. It was so clear that this was someone who was extremely gifted—it took my breath away.”

Bruce Bishop, a local musician and guitar virtuoso himself, is no stranger to talent but he says meeting then 17-year-old Matt Keen “changed my life. He restored my faith in the joy of music and how [a performer] can take the energy of an audience to new places.”

At the time, Bishop was beginning his first year as a guitar teacher at the Monarch School in Heron, a college-prep school for teenagers who may not have walked the easiest of roads in life. Matt was one of those teenagers: “I was hanging out with the wrong crowd and making some very bad decisions,” Matt said. “My mom saw what was going on and reacted to it immediately,” and Matt, a Chicago resident at the time, found himself in rural Heron, Montana in a program where ‘poor choices’ were not an option.

With both parents in the Air Force, Matt experienced a peripatetic childhood where “I was exposed to a ton of stuff and living a pretty mature life.” One he wasn’t totally prepared to deal with —at least, until his mom intervened. “She saw any kind of bright future for me fading if I continued to make bad choices.”

Throughout that upbringing, however, was music—Matt’s first big performance took place when he was nine years old,  before a couple of hundred people, at a “little Catholic school in Edmond, Oklahoma.” But he was no prodigy as far as instruments go; “I took guitar lessons but I didn’t want to learn scales and chords—I wanted to play music. “Foxy Lady” was at the top of the list,” he reminisced.

Still, by the time he was 17 he was able to knock an accomplished guitarist like Bishop out of his socks. “He already knew a couple of hundred songs and could perform them at the drop of a hat,” he said.

Although Bruce says he “didn’t teach him much of anything,” Matt disagrees. “Bruce is the man,” he laughed. “That guy really made my being at the Monarch bearable. He has a sense of reality and balance and he believed me from the moment he met me. Besides, he’s a helluva guitar player, and a great guitar teacher. He’s my role model.”

Matt, who’s working on his second CD this summer, isn’t quite sure how to describe his music. “I was born to sing the blues,” he said, but on his MySpace website  he  lists as inspiration such artists as Ben Harper, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and Tupac Shakur. Others say he’s his generation’s John Prine or Jack Johnson. Bishop says “he’s like Ray Charles reincarnated; he posesses that same great magic. (I’d say) he’s a bit of a throwback—he’s absorbed the essence of the 60s and the 70s where music is expression. If he sings about the sun you can feel it on your face. You couldn’t put up walls and keep him out.”

Keen, who as a student at the Monarch School wasn’t allowed to attend the Festival at Sandpoint, is nonetheless thrilled to be considered as an opening act. “I’ve heard such great things about it, I can hardly believe it,” he said. “I am so thankful for this chance.”

Now back in Chicago and with a couple of years of college under his belt (where he studied jazz, blues and gospel voice), Matt looks back to his years in the Pacific Northwest as a “lucky gift. At times it was rough, but the Monarch thing was really great. It forced maturity on me and I ran with it. And when I look at where I’m going... wow. Things are happening for me and I know it’s because of what I’ve gone through.”

Bruce says that as he’s watched over and worked with Matt through the years, “I’ve never seem him falter, never seen him lose confidence. He’s very consistent and very smart. [Matt describes himself as a ‘closet intellectual’ though he says he “hates math” and has managed to “avoid any math classes in college.”] When he was at the school, he was totally focused on keeping everything running smoothly so he could write songs and play his music.”

Earlier this year Matt joined his mentor Bruce, and local phenomenon Beth Pederson on the stage at Di Luna’s, where he wowed the crowd with his unique voice, amazing stage presence, and original music. [A crowd favorite was a song he wrote for a former girlfriend: “don’t go away angry, just go away.” The song, despite its catchy lyrics, resonates with the love he felt. “I still love her,” he said. “Sometimes things just don’t work out.”] When his set was over, dozens of people lined up to purchase CDs, and hardly any could believe he was only 19 years old.

That triggered interest locally in having him appear on the Festival stage. “I get a lot of recommendations from the public for acts,” explained Dyno Wahl, executive director of the Festival at Sandpoint. “And I love it when we can accommodate that. I have to get approval from the main stage artists, but when we find someone with talent, it’s one of my greatest pleasures to help support that. As far as Matt Keen goes, Bruce Bishop’s support speaks volumes.” (Web update: Matt has been approved and will open for JJ Grey & Mofro and Blues Traveler on August 7.)

“I’m almost 20,” Matt says when asked his age, but he won’t turn that age until a month after the Festival tent is folded up and put back in storage. Still, he doesn’t hesitate in his belief that music is the field where he’ll make his home.

“There’s no doubt about it, this is what I’m gonna do,” he said. “It’s the most positive outlet in my life.”

Bruce doesn’t hesitate in his belief, either. “Listening to Matt is like getting in on the ground floor of a real new talent. You can’t help but fall in love with him,” he added. “Matt is the real thing.”

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Festival at Sandpoint, music, Matt Keen, Bruce Bishop

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