New York poet-folkie and singer-songwriter Steven Keene takes on the role of a musical archaeologist with his latest track “I Can’t Leave Her Behind” — collaborating across space and time with a young Bob Dylan captured on an obscure audio artifact from 1966 — to bring one of the folk legend’s greatest unfinished compositions to life.
Keene first encountered the undeveloped Dylan track years ago, when another diehard fan of the music icon showed him an unauthorized bootleg copy of Eat The Document, an unpublished film by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker chronicling Dylan’s infamous 66' European Tour. Most known for eternalizing the moment in Dylan’s career when confrontational fans turned on him (calling him "Judas" for having the audacity to grow as an artist and deviate from his early overtly social-justice-themed acoustic sound), the footage also immortalized some rare moments of creative magic. Dylan would often kill time between shows by playing along and sharing song ideas with Robbie Robertson of The Band, and one serendipitous outtake from the tour footage captures a spontaneous performance in a Glasgow hotel room the moment “I Can’t Leave Her Behind” was born.
“It's very fragmented, and it seems he's making up words as he goes,” says Keene of the original recording. “Anyway, he never seemed to pick this one back up again, and he just moved on to the next one, so it kinda got lost.”
“I wanted to keep it pretty faithful to the way Dylan did it, but with a little bit more production to bring it out of that hotel room. I added a harmonica solo to it, and I think the addition of strings and pedal steel really gives it a nice feel. Lyrically, I was really limited by what I could hear. Some words were there, some words were hard to make out …and there were some gaps to fill in, so I did my best at trying to fill in those gaps. In those cases, I went with my gut and what I thought would work. I really found myself playing the archaeologist, you know, on a dig.”
“I Can’t Leave Her Behind ” is the focus track heralding the imminent release of Keene’s new album Woke (out Feb. 3, 2023, on Reviver Records). The album pays homage to some of the artist’s major creative influences while chronicling the evolution of Keene’s own sound as he explores musical and lyrical motifs around love, loss, social responsibility, and political resistance. The songs on Woke run the gamut from the overtly political to the starkly anti-political, from rock and blues to folk, and even some old-school country. Handcrafting consistently powerful and timely songs with deeply meditative lyrics, “Woke” is a compilation of lessons that deliver universal messages of hope to the collective consciousness.
Also at the forefront of the album is Keene’s powerful and timely anti-war anthem “Soon,” a track that seamlessly melds a James Agee-styled social critique with the ardent defiance of the best in American protest music.
Keene’s newly rising star is a sure sign that there are listeners out there who are hungry for his straightforward style of empathy and human connection — and the consistent flow and range of the new material Steven Keene has been churning out over the last couple of years foreshadows the broad stylistic eclecticism and bold subject matter that can be expected on Woke.