Robert Earl Keen’s  Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree
Robert Earl Keen’s  Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree

Robert Earl Keen’s Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree

Robert Earl Keen and Robert Ellis at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Austin, TX, December 16, 2017
Review by Ward Lowe and Photography by Jim Chapin

With a grey beard and matching long hair, Robert Earl Keen looked the part of a musical Santa Claus on stage at the Moody Theater. It was appropriate for his annual Christmas show, which evolved from Keen’s 1994 hit “Merry Christmas from the Family.” This year’s show, “Back to the Country Jamboree,” not only featured some of Keen’s most popular songs but also songs from giants of American country, folk, and rock music.

Robert Earl Keen at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Austin, TX 12/16/2017. © 2017 Jim Chapin PhotographyAmid inflatable holiday decorations, scantily clad mannequins, and several Christmas trees, the band ripped through Neil Young’s “Get Back to the Country” and Keen favorites “Feelin’ Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon” before the first guest star, Levon Helm of The Band, took over on lead vocals.

You might be wondering how Helm, who died in 2012, sang his trademark song from behind the drum kit. He and the guests to follow were members of Keen’s band dressed to resemble the music icons they were imitating. The pattern continued throughout the night with varying degrees of success: The band played a few Keen songs followed by a cover sung by one of his band members in costume.

Levon Helm, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young managed competent versions of their songs, while James Taylor and Tom Petty did not. Hands down, the best star was Keen’s fiddler who took on Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast as You.” Not only did he nail the look of ’90s Yoakam—tan Stetson pulled low, bleached denim from head to toe—his boot-scootin’ and vocals brought fans to their feet.

Robert Earl Keen at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Austin, TX 12/16/2017. © 2017 Jim Chapin PhotographyThe problem with the cover songs was that the band failed to try anything original with the music. If the vocals or mannerisms were off, the song quickly devolved from tribute to parody.

The homage to legendary musicians fell flat, but Keen delivered with his greatest hits.

He rocked an amped-up version of “Corpus Christi Bay” before leading a singalong in “That Buckin’ Song.” His self-deprecating monologue in “The Front Porch Song” included details about his time at Blinn College in Bryan, which cracked up the audience. And the long-anticipated “Merry Christmas from the Family” anchored a raucous encore, which had fans toasting each other and belting out the lyrics.

Opener Robert Ellis mixed country and Americana originals with songs of John Hartford, from his recent album. He showcased his considerable talents despite dealing the indifferent crowd, at one point shushing loud fans during a tender “Delta Queen Waltz.” He was joined after the first two songs by Courtney Hartman, his collaborator on his latest album “Dear John: The Songs of John Hartford.”

ROBERT EARL KEEN PHOTO GALLERY

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Robert Earl Keen Setlist: Get Back to the Country, Feelin’ Good Again, Gringo Honeymoon, The Weight, Amarillo Highway, Corpus Christi Bay, Like a Rolling Stone, I’m Comin’ Home, That Buckin’ Song, Fast as You, The Front Porch Song, Shower the People, I Gotta Go, The Road Goes on Forever, American Girl Encore: Heart of Gold, Happy Holidays, Y’all, Merry Christmas from the Family, Feliz Navidad

ROBERT ELLIS PHOTO GALLERY

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About the Author and Photographer

Ward Lowe
Ward Lowe is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. He’s followed Phish, two-stepped at the Broken Spoke, and enjoys a good hair band.
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Jim Chapin
Freelance Live Music, Editorial & Event Photographer, Writer and Graphic Artist currently living it up in Austin, Texas - Live Music Capital of the World!
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