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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Robert Earl Keen shoots for the moon in this year's Christmas show

Robert Earl Keen

REK Christmas Countdown, Dec. 5, 2019, Town Hall

There are a lot of Christmas shows—and then there’s Robert Earl Keen’s.

This year’s theme is “Christmas Countdown,” and centers on the 1969 lunar landing. At the Dec. 5 tour stop at New York’s Town Hall, Keen and his band took the stage to the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie opening theme (Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra), the stage being a wondrous prop-laden Christmas Countdown fantasy of spacecraft, Christmas trees and decorations, and cigarette boxes evoking Keen’s evergreen chestnut “Merry Christmas from the Family”—with emerging band members costumed as 1960s music legends.

Keen, though, was decked out in a suit festooned with galaxies and nebulae, and after a couple concert staples (“Feelin’ Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon”) proceeded to the lunar landing portion of the program with “Charlie Duke Took Country Music to the Moon,” a song off of the Stryker Brothers’ Burn Band album from last year--the Strykers being Keen and fellow Texas country music bandleader Randy Rogers, Duke being the lunar module pilot/moonwalker of Apollo 16 in 1972, who took a pair of country music cassette compilations along with him.

The rest of the show alternated more Keen classics (“Corpus Christi Bay,” “Amarillo Highway,” “Train Trek,” “Shades of Gray,” “I’m Comin’ Home” and “The Road Goes on Forever”) with “special guests” performing their somewhat theme-related big hits from the ‘60s.

First up was George Harrison (mandolinist Kym Warner) who turned in a near-perfect version of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” While R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon” isn’t a ‘60s song, Keen justified it since Michael Stipe was born in 1960—and drummer Tom Van Schaik, who sang it, is bald like Stipe.

Fiddler Brian Beken, who took over the drums during “Man on the Moon,” looked and sang the part of Elton John on “Rocket Man,” while bassist Bill Whitbeck was thoroughly convincing as David Bowie on “Space Oddity” in wig, glam jacket and voice.

That leaves pedal steeler Marty Muse, whose appearance and singing couldn’t quite compare with that of the 5th Dimension on “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” but he was aided immeasurably by the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns and the Shiny Soul Sisters (Kelley Mickwee and Alice Spencer) of opening band Shinyribs—Austin’s spectacular show band led by The Gourds’ Kevin Russell.

Russell and the rest of Shinyribs returned for encore “Merry Christmas from the Family”—the reason for the Christmas tours to begin with. Keen’s uber-dysfunctional 1994 family Christmas song is far and away his most popular—year-round, in fact. As it ends with the words “feliz navidad,” he and the ensemble segued seamlessly into the song in closing out the show.

Outside at the merch table, meanwhile, in addition to ultra-cool items like a high quality Robert Earl Keen signature guitar and Merry Christmas from the Family songbook/CD and displayed among several beer coozies, was a novel new energy drink can mini-coozie.

"Merry Christmas from the Family"



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