Live Review: Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road to Christmas” w/ Waylon Payne @ Lincoln Theatre — 12/6/21

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Robert Earl Keen (Photo by EMG/Shutterstock)

Legendary Texas singer-songwriter Robert Ear Keen’s annual Christmas tour is highlight of the holiday season. Built around his fan-favorite “Merry Christmas From the Fam-O-Lee,” every year REK and his band design a show around a theme.

Past themes have included “Country Gold” and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. This year, the theme was “The Road to Christmas.” Each year’s show presents a collection of REK originals and cover songs fitted to theme, and his recent performance at the historic Lincoln Theatre in DC was no different. Costumes were a part of the deal, too; this year, all involved wore white jumpsuits, meant to suggest mechanics. It was truly a collective performance, as REK let his band members sing cover songs of their choice.

REK shows are always a blast, in large part because of the intensity of his fandom. At many of his performances, you’ll hear the audience singing along to every song. That Keen has achieved such a rabid following is both because and despite the shape of his career. He’s said that he associates himself more with Americana than with country; he briefly lived in Nashville in the ’80s, but his career has been based around a strong foundation in his native Texas, where his popularity is something to behold. Similar to how Willie “brought the hippies and rednecks together,” REK’s following crosses the lines between fraternity members and “serious,” artistically minded music fans.  

On Monday night, REK’s “The Road to Christmas” tour rolled into DC’s Lincoln Theatre, with a diverse, highly energized crowd in attendance. The evening opened with a 45-minute set by Waylon Payne, and then REK and his band took the stage and tour it for two hours, playing his trademark combo of country, folk, and rock’n’roll.

Described as “country music royalty,” Payne is the son of singer Sammi Smith and Jody Payne, a longtime guitarist for Willie Nelson. Smith is best known for her Grammy-winning cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” and Waylon sings it every night as a tribute to his late mother. Kristofferson’s influence on Payne goes far beyond this song, a fact that Waylon has been quick to admit.

Watch Waylon Payne perform “Help Me Make It Through the Night” live at The Cutting Room for Paste on YouTube:

With an accompanist on electric guitar, Waylon took the stage and opened his set with Elvis’s “Blue Christmas.” Covering one of the greatest singers of all time to kick off your set is a bold move, and Waylon absolutely possesses the chops to pull it off; he is a fine, fine singer. Moving on to his next tune, “Sin of the Father,” he told the audience, “I wrote a song about my dad. It’s not very Christmassy, but something tells me y’all didn’t show up for just Christmas music.” Both then and later in the show, Waylon — who is gay — mentioned his uneasy relationship with his father, who he didn’t meet until he was 16, and who, he shared, once tried to get him a hooker. (I would have thought this sounded awesome when I was a teenager, but the wisdom of maturity allows me to see it as deeply troubling.)

Waylon has a sharp wit and a real talent for stage banter that comes from carefully studying some of the best performers to do it. At one point, he responded to a comment in the crowd with an extended bit that included him pretending to berate the poor, “I thought I told you to say to stay in the trailer!” before going all sweetness and sugar and telling them, “you can say,” He admitted he’d lifted that joke from Dolly Parton, and the touch of camp she has suits him well, too. The same sense of humor was evident when he joked that he wrote “Dead on the Wheel” about Lindsey Lohan.

That touch of humor is important for Waylon’s performance, as a lot of his songs are very serious and very heavy. He openly discussed his history of addiction struggles, and, when he was introducing “After the Storm,” he told the audience that, when she was dying, “My mama had one wish for me, to get sober. And I did.” Continuing the narrative of his performance, he said, “I got sober and I wrote this song,” the Grammy-nominated “All The Trouble,” originally recorded by Lee Ann Womack (which he recorded himself on last year’s album).

After the title track of his album, he was offered a drink by someone in the audience, but he demurred, as he abstains from alcohol. He did, however, lead the audience in a toast, before talking about “Santa Ana Winds.” “I wrote a song for my little boy. Well, he’s not my little boy, but he’s like my little boy,” he said about the child of a close friend. Waylon credits his sobriety to being close to him as an infant, and wanting to be a part of his life. He added, “he’s 11 now.”

Waylon closed his set with “Precious Thing,” and receiving rousing applause for the crowd. I’ve gotten to see Waylon twice this year, and been very impressed both times; if you have the opportunity, I recommend catching him.

A native of Houston, Texas, Robert Earl Keen started playing music while he was a student at Texas A&M in the ’70s. He was close friends with fellow Aggie Lyle Lovett, and the two played and even wrote tunes, like “The Front Porch Song” together. Far from an overnight success, Keen gain early recognition for winning a songwriting competition at the Kerrville folk festival, and self-released his first album, No Kinda Dancer. After several years of hard touring, opening for legendary fellow Texans like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, his career took off at the end of the ’80s with The Live Album, which showcased his ability to entertain a crowd. As the decade turned, other performers started noticing his work, with Joe Ely covering what would become his signature tune, “The Road Goes On Forever and the Party Never Ends.” Keen released the song later on his own West Textures, and his career began growing by leaps and bounds.

Watch Robert Earl Keen perform “”Not a Drop of Rain”, “Shades of Grey”, and “Merry Christmas From The Family” live for Jam in the Van on YouTube:

Before REK and the band launched into their first song, he removed his shades, saying, “I can hear my dad in my head going, ‘Take off those damn sunglasses!'” They started off with the slow, easy swing of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” and they followed that with a very different cover tune, Adam Carroll’s high-octane “Race Car Joe.” REK praised Carroll’s ability to hone in on the cool details we all notice, but can’t really express ourselves.

While there were a lot of covers on Monday, there were plenty of REK originals, too. The first was “Going Down In Style.” Introducing the song, he talked about stealing his father’s Cadillac. He hoped, he said, to make it to Luego, but only made it to Sugarland, which is only about 15 miles from where his family lived in Houston. When he introduced “What I Really Mean,” he opined a bit on the songwriting process, mentioning how a lot of songwriters write vague lyrics, and how this song is kind of a response to that. “Is it the music or the words that come first?” he asked, and went on to answer, “No, it’s the dumbass idea that comes first.”

The stories REK tells are as big a part of the show as the songs themselves. It’s impossible to capture the full detail of any of them, but I can give you a bit of their flavor from one he told about a place he once lived: Bandera, the cowboy capital of the world. This town, he explained had a lot of bars, and one mayoral candidate even ran on a platform of promising to be out at a bar every night. He lost by only a single vote. All of this storytelling was really a roundabout way of bringing up a bar he namechecks in “Feelin’ Good Again.”

Watch Robert Earl Keen perform “Feelin’ Good Again” for Paste Studios on YouTube:

REK’s shows are always a blast because his fans are so passionate and enthusiastic. When the audience heard the opening notes of “Gringo Honeymoon,” may rose from their seats and cheered. But the biggest “crowd pop” of the night came at the end of the set, when “The Road Goes On Forever and the Party Never Ends” had the audience on their feet and clapping along.

At these Christmas shows, REK allows his band members to each take a turn singing lead on a song of their choice. On Monday, the first of those was Little Feat’s classic “Willin’,” which was sung by bassist Bill Whitbeck, who was born in DC; the band gave this one an extended, Celtic-tinged intro before Bill did the familiar, spoken opening of the song. Later, drummer Tom Van Schaik took lead on the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” which REK introduced as “a quintessential road song.” Lead guitarist Brian Beken rocked out on AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Before he played, REK said that, when they did their “country gold” shows, Brian came out in in a powder blue tuxedo and had women “swooning for him.”

For a cover of Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again,” REK brought Waylon back out to sing. The set also included REK’s classic tunes “I Gotta Go,” “Shades of Grey,” and “Amarillo Highway,” as well as covers of Tyler Childer’s “Sinner Man” and John Denver’s “Country Road, Take Me Home.”

For the encore, REK and his band went full nuclear, busting out Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” before closing with his “Merry Christmas From the Fam-O-Lee” followed by “Feliz Navidad.” 

Every REK show is a lot of fun, and Monday night was another great one, with terrific songs and an electric crowd. This is way Christmas should be celebrated.

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