Keen blasts off with lunar, looney Christmas show

Keen blasts off with lunar, looney Christmas show


Robert Earl Keen grew up in Houston. In the 1960s. His high school mascot was the Apollos.

It seems fitting that Keen, at the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, would choose to pay homage to the men and women involved in Apollo 11. His annual holiday tour is themed “Countdown to Christmas: Lunar Tunes and Looney Times Tour.”

Astronaut Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind on July 21, 1969, followed by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The Apollo series of missions landed the first humans on the moon.

Ground control and astronaut training guided the Apollo and Gemini missions from the facilities that became the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in the Clear Lake area of Houston. Gemini took astronauts out of their space craft.

But Keen will launch his own style of tribute. “It’s everything lunar and loony,” he says.

During Keen’s Christmas shows, each of his band members chooses a song fitting the theme and performs it — costume and all. Keen reveals that band members will launch David Bowie as Major Tom and Elton John as Rocket Man.

And the opening act, Shinyribs, will join the band to end the show.

A rocket ship and lunar module will grace the tour’s backdrop, along with Keen’s own Christmas traditions — giant boxes of tampons and cigarettes. He chronicled his own family dysfunction in the 1994 song, “Merry Christmas to the Family” and now brings it to the stage each December.

“It was July. It was summer in Houston, and I remember it being really classically humid. That’s why we didn’t mind going in the house to watch,” Keen reminisces on watching the first step of man on the moon on television.

“I remember thinking that the surface of the moon was really dry. And as we’re sitting there in the sweltering heat, I thought, ‘If they can put a man on the moon, they can do something about this humidity.’”

Keen remembers friends who lived across town in Clear Lake, Texas, and worked for NASA.

But his earliest memories recall the teacher stopping class and rolling in a television to watch the Gemini and Apollo missions.

“I’m not sure what went on in the rest of the country, but in Houston, we celebrated it every time,” Keen says.

Keen shares that, in some way, the moon landings must have influenced his life and the theme of this year’s Christmas tour.

But he admits he’s no rocket scientist when he creates the theme each year. “I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.

“Somewhere around February, everybody will start asking me what the theme will be,” he says. “I tell them to stop asking me, ‘Hold your horses.’ Sometime in the summer, I will come up with the theme.

“It’s the same thing when it’s time to record.”

Keen’s opening act will no doubt bring their brand of holiday cheer. Shinyribs released their own Christmas recording, “The Kringle Tingle,” in 2018.

Keen called Shinyribs “a big bucket of entertainment” — a mix of blues, Cajun and rhythm and blues. In fact, he talked about their performance before he spoke of his own.

The band’s leader Kevin Russell was one of the first musicians Keen wanted to interview for his podcast, “Americana Podcast: The 52st State.”

“Russell, who previously fronted the Gourds, is one of three people born for the stage, but they don’t know it,” Keen offers.



Robert Earl Keen:

‘Countdown to Christmas’

WHEN — 7 p.m. Dec. 17

WHERE — Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville

COST — $27-$57

INFO — 443-5600,

BONUS — Shinyribs will also perform.

Categories: Cover Story