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Lawyer spends a month as Yeasayer’s ‘oldest groupie’

Born in the thick of World War II London to a convict-turned-British army heavyweight boxing champion, Anton J.S. Keating emigrated to Canada, then Boston, before prosecuting and then representing dozens of death penalty-eligible defendants during an illustrious legal career in Baltimore.

Now 67 years old, how does such a person spend his winter vacation?

On tour with his son’s hit experimental rock band, naturally.

Charming and irreverent, easy to quip or laugh, and himself a stage performer of sorts, the white-haired Keating spent a month with Yeasayer, the Brooklyn-based psychedelic group fronted by his son Chris, as the band toured through New Zealand and Australia this year. He reckons he was “the oldest groupie in the f…ing Southern Hemisphere.”

“They’re actually quite middle-of-the-road in terms of their lifestyle,” he said during a stateside interview this month. “And as a parent that’s what you look for.”

“But you got no say over it anyway,” he continued after a pause. “What am I going to do, ground him?”

Though half a world away, the Keatings’ father-and-son trip Down Under had its origins in Baltimore, where Keating settled after college and where his son was born and raised.

By the time Chris came along, Keating had worked in the city state’s attorney’s office, public defender’s office, attorney general’s office and run credibly but unsuccessfully for state’s attorney, before settling into his own private criminal defense practice.

Keating said both Chris and his daughter Erin, now a comedy producer in New York, were fully exposed to the law but went in other directions — more in line with Anton’s brother, Charles, a Shakespearean actor who won an Emmy for his role on Another World.

“If you plant a cabbage, you get a cabbage, not a Brussels sprout,” Keating said. “Whereas with kids … All you can do is embolden.”

Blowing through security

The seeds of what became Yeasayer, called the most blogged about musicians of 2010, germinated at Park School in Pikesville, where Chris and bandmate Anand Wilder were classmates. The boys’ first group, Sic Transit Gloria, was not particularly well-received, Keating remembers.

With the addition of Wilder’s cousin and two other guys, the duo became Yeasayer, a quintet whose YouTube videos and songs on MySpace have been played hundreds of thousands of times.

The group first generated buzz at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, four years ago, and Yeasayer released its first album in fall 2007. The band now tours nationwide, in Europe and beyond, playing the Spring Quesadilla Tour in Mexico City over the weekend, according to its website.

Keating caught up with Yeasayer at the end of January during the Auckland leg of the Laneway Festival. Equipped with his own “artist” name tag — “so I can blow through all the security stuff,” he explained — Keating said he was among 5,000 people to hear his son’s band that evening.

He remembers there always being “a real buzz” after his brother’s theater performances.

“But compared to a musical performance, it’s like a wake,” he said. “I’m kind of real tickled that Chris is involved in that.”

Keating said he would usually hang out with the band backstage before the show, then leak into the crowd once they went on stage. He likened the anxiety of keeping the crowd waiting to waiting for a judge to come to the bench, but his son reassured him.

“Chris said, ‘No, Dad, the more they drink, the better we sound,’” Keating said.

When they weren’t performing, Keating said, the band members would exercise and, perhaps surprisingly, go sing karaoke, including one night in Melbourne.

“I’m used to going to places where people really can’t sing,” Keating said of amateur outings in Baltimore, including with the late Baltimore City Circuit Judge John N. Prevas. “We get to this place, and oh my God, these people were tremendous.”

He was surprised but not intimidated.

“It’s not like a jury — no one goes to jail — so what?” said Keating, whose notable cases include the successful capital defense of Nathaniel Appleby, who fatally stabbed a prison guard. The Keatings chose a tune from Chris’ high school days.

“I got knocked down but I get up again,” Keating began, reciting the chorus of British anarchist group Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”

It’s logical, then, that one of Keating’s favorite Yeasayer songs is “Ambling Alp,” a dreamy, polyphonic number about the other Chris Keating, the boxer from two generations back. Its chorus: “Stick up for yourself, son, never mind what anybody else done.”

“My dad would’ve loved it,” Anton Keating said.

In Melbourne, Keating took his own busman’s holiday when he visited the Old Melbourne Gaol, where he learned about the notorious Ned Kelly and viewed the facility’s collection of death masks.

“It’s pretty cool, if you’re macabre,” he said.

At the end of the tour last month, the band took their own vacations — Anand to Thailand and Chris and his wife to Brazil — and Keating the lawyer returned home to North Baltimore and federal court hearings.

Just ask, though, and he’ll tell you all about it, recounting everything from the sheep in New Zealand to the parrots outside his cousin’s house in Australia.

But as any silver-tongued defense attorney knows, the performance is important, but it’s all about the bottom line.

“The best part of it was hanging out with my son,” Keating said.