No-Brand Nudo

Songs Go On for Keith Harden Fans

This is a sweet story I did on a talented musician named Keith Harden, who used to live in and play live in Champaign-Urbana. From a July 2006 issue of The Hub.

“Keep your heart always rising, way above the ground.”

-Keith Harden, from the song “House of Cards”

“My name is Keith Harden. It’s good to be back here in Champaign.”

With that intro, Keith Harden, wearing blue jeans, a blue shirt, and sandals, launched into a spot-on rendition of a Bob Dylan song about Woody Guthrie.

Under The News-Gazette tent at the Taste of C-U at West Side Park, folks bobbed their heads and clapped enthusiastically as Harden ripped through a slew of songs by classic artists such as Johnny Cash, John Prine, Janis Joplin, and Son House.

He also bantered with the crowd. The price of gas is a particular concern to Harden right now, but he didn’t dwell on it. One of the nice guys of music, Harden emphasized his Champaign connection following the performance.

“It’s great to see Champaign-Urbana thriving,” he said. “The downtown Champaign area is just amazing. People just seem really involved with the music and the culture.”

Harden knows about thriving music scenes. His place of residence in Geneva, New York, where he lives with his wife, a college professor, allows for easy access to the cultural environments of Rochester, Ithaca, and Syracuse. Ithaca, Harden said, has an especially unique and diverse vibe that he likes.

Keith Harden’s name is known well around these parts. He was a longtime C-U resident and played in the Keith Harden Band, a three-piece electric-blues outfit that jammed together for fifteen years, sometimes adding a harmonica player and keyboardist on stage.

Harden is fifty-four with a baby face, though he said his years with his old band took their toll.

“I’m half deaf,” he said with a laugh.

Harden keeps the live music lighter these days, but he remains as dedicated as ever, playing two gigs a week at Rochester’s Beale Street Cafe on Tuesdays, the Dinosaur Barbeque every other Monday, and at various pubs and wineries on weekends.

Music is a full-time passion for Harden, who releases his CDs independently. He remains hopeful that a suitable record label will sign him on the dotted line as his career moves forward.

“I would love to get a record label,” he said. “But it’s so competitive and so hard to do.”

Outstanding originals

Harden loves to play old blues songs by other artists for his fans — and his fans love hearing those songs — but his original tunes are every bit as noteworthy.

The musician’s 2000 album, There Goes Another Day, for instance, is twelve songs of gorgeousness that Harden ranks as likely his finest of the twelve records he’s released to this point.

Armed with his usual blend of acoustic guitars and a harmonica, Harden was in a melodic zone when he wrote the songs on There Goes Another Day. He added keyboards, drum programming (along with Rocky Maffit on some percussion), a dobro, and some “backwards stuff” to give the album its lush flair. Among the hooks are lyrics that are reflective, inspiring, beautiful.

Following a string of more released albums in the early 2000s, Harden added a mandolin to the sound of his 2004 CD, The Song Goes On, a mostly percussion-free record that features a more down-home country sound. Harden said some people have told him the CD is reminiscent of Neil Young’s sound.

Tunes on The Song Goes On such as “Come to My Senses,” “The Mountain Song,” “When We Used to Play,” and “Down by the Water” capture perfectly Harden’s majestic acoustic guitar and heart-wrenching lyrics.

Part of Harden’s appeal to his fans may be his independent spirit. C-U called Harden its own for a long time, and now folks in the northeast get to do the same. It’s a treat to see Harden play live. When he plays the guitar, it sounds as if two people are playing.

Harden explained: “I’ve been playing solo gigs for so many years. You learn little ways of playing that make it sound complete. Even if you don’t play everything that’s there, you suggest it kind of, giving it that change-up by doing a little bit of picking and strumming.”

The Tolono native returns to C-U twice a year to play live shows, usually during the summer and holiday season. He loves seeing old friends and playing shows where die-hard fans in town can still catch him. A new batch of songs from a freshly released album is not uncommon when Harden returns to Illinois.

Discover more about Keith Harden.

Photo by Sal Nudo


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