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.
Amid 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.
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.”