I’m not a traditionalist about Christmas. Part of it stems from growing up in a family where adults made routine visits to the hospital during the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
Part of it is having four children, including “Irish triplets,” all born in December (some would call that poor planning). Part of it is having a birthday in January, the afterthought month.
Thankfully, Robert Earl Keen is not a traditionalist either. He’s more interested in a party than caroling door-to-door singing “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells.” For him, the holidays are about getting his friends and bandmates together to sing a bunch of cover tunes under a kitschy theme.
After all, this is the man who wrote “Merry Christmas from the Family,” the trailer park classic that manages to incorporate drunk parents, celery, tampons, intolerant in-laws, homemade egg-nog, chain smoking, bean dip and fake snow. The 1994 song is so popular that Keen — always the entrepreneur in addition to being one of the most highly regarded Texas songwriters — has built a mini-industry around it, including an annual holiday tour.
On Monday, following an outstanding opening set from Waylon Payne, Keen and his four-piece band came onto the stage at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Theater in white one-piece jumpsuits with long red scarves and sunglasses. After brief greetings Keen took off the glasses and launched into Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” followed by Adam Carroll’s “Race Car Joe.”
At this point, the program moves into a mix of Keen originals and covers, most of which are sung by members of his band. On Keen’s side of the aisle, we got “Going Down in Style,” “What I Really Mean,” “Feelin’ Good Again” (a personal favorite), “Gringo Honeymoon,” “Shades of Gray,” “I Gotta Go,” “Amarillo Highway” and “The Road Goes on Forever.”
Keen handed over lead vocals to his band members for their takes on “Willin’,” “Highway to Hell,” and “Ramblin’ Man.” Payne, whose father played guitar for Willie Nelson, came back on stage and took the lead for “On the Road Again,” while Keen took the lead on a diverse set of covers (Tyler Childers’ “Sinner Man,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Freebird”).
“Freebird” was the first song in the encore, which finished with the inevitable “Merry Christmas from the Family.” By this point, everyone in the theatre was standing and singing along, not ready to leave and in the holiday spirit. Grinch be damned.
As a front end to the holiday bookend, Payne started his opening set with a cover of “Blue Christmas” before moving into a mostly original set from his excellent album, “Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me.” Payne brings new twists to traditional country songwriting on songs like “Sins of the Father” and “Santa Ana Winds,” both of which he played on Monday.
He also has a fascinating backstory. He’s an actor (Jerry Lee Lewis in 2005’s “Walk the Line”), a recovering addict, and a gay man who channeled all of those experiences into his album. Payne’s mother, Sammi Smith, made “Help Me Make It Through the Night” into a classic; he covered the Kris Kristofferson tune during his set and has the date of her death (2/12/05) etched into his guitar. Check out his music. He’s the real deal.
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