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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Robert Earl Keen brings 'Merry Christmas from the Family' to Town Hall

Robert Earl Keen and band perform "Happy Holidays, Y'All" during last year's "Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee" tour.

‘Twas a time not too long ago when Robert Earl Keen only performed his most-requested song “Merry Christmas from the Family” during the holiday season or thereabouts. But he finally gave in and does it year-round now, and has even put together an annual holiday Merry Christmas From the Fam-O-Lee show tour, which came to New York’s Town Hall Wednesday night.

This year’s subtheme is “Back to the Country Jamboree,” which involves Keen’s band members—guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik, steel guitarist Marty Muse, fiddler Brian Bacon and mandolinist Kym Warner—wearing wigs and goofy getup in celebrating “country rock artists of the American songbook,” as Keen put it. These included Neil Young (whose 1985 single “Get Back to the Country” gave the concept its name, and was the show’s first song), Bob Dylan, Dwight Yoakam, James Taylor, Levon Helm, and Tom Petty, for which Warner’s voice, hair and hat were perfect on “American Girl.”

Fortunately, Keen stayed himself, though in his shimmering silver smoking jacket matching his long silver hair and beard he fittingly looked a formal St. Nick at the center of a stage decked out to the lyrics of the uber-dysfunctional 1994 song “Merry Christmas from the Family.” The props included a giant pack of cigarettes and box of tampons, mounted deer head, Christmas trees and lights, and the lower half of Santa Claus sticking out of the fireplace. It wasn’t the boozy bar of normal Keen concerts full of rowdy college kids—though there were plenty in attendance—but the older sit-down theater fans were no less raucous, yelling out the climactic “I ain’t never goin’ back!” line from Keen’s classic “Gringo Honeymoon” as loud as the youngsters.

Other Keen fan base faves performed included “Feelin’ Good Again,” “Corpus Christi Bay,” and “That Buckin’ Song”--with Keen proclaiming that while audience participation on the “Hey! Hey!” lyric was optional, shouting the following “Yippee-yi ky-yay” was mandatory—though neither admonition was necessary.

Noting that “I’m Comin’ Home” is the answer to the oft-asked question of what his favorite self-penned song is, he explained that he’d written it in his backyard, and that his songs are visually evocative: “Welcome to my backyard!” he concluded, then took a solo acoustic guitar break with a couple quick “song snapchats” of “Our Municipal Airport” and “Johnny Cash.”

After relating how he and Lyle Lovett wrote it while famously attending Texas A&M, Keen sang “The Front Porch Song," and then maybe the best band on the road returned to finish the show with Keen’s anthem “The Road Goes on Forever,” followed by encore “Happy Holidays Y’all”--the 1998 “sequel” to “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which came next. And to top it off, Keen and the band flowed from it right into “Feliz Navidad,” that contemporary Christmas chestnut’s last two words.

"Merry Christmas from the Family"

Being a fine singer-songwriter-story teller in her own right, Elizabeth Cook was a perfect opener for Keen. The host of morning radio show Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings on Sirius XM Satellite Radio’s Outlaw Country channel, Cook, self-accompanied on acoustic guitar, sang some of her best-known songs, including “El Camino” and “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman,” the latter referencing Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn—both of whom Cook owes to.

She also sang a new song, “Half-Hanged Mary,” about Mary Webster, the 17th century Massachusetts woman accused of witchcraft who survived an all-night hanging—and to whom Margaret Atwood wrote a poem and dedicated her novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

“They don’t hang people in Town Square anymore,” concluded Cook, “but on social media and news networks.”



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