Because he's a ka-jillionaire whose product is mostly shoveled by Wal-Mart and is therefore in no position to sell out anyway, I don't know why it surprised me that Toby Keith, that big ol' hunk of American angus, opened his Friday-night Sprint Center show with a seven-minute Ford commercial.
Or that hearty Ford logos bedecked his tailgate-themed stage set.
Or that this stirred reverential whoops from the breasts of an audience more like constituents than mere fans.
"Selling out" is a 20th century notion, and now that the bailout's behind us, Keith naming his "American's Toughest Tour" for America's Toughest Truck is tantamount to patriotism.
Toby + flag = a boot in Prius' ass.
And just as with truckbeds, the ad's length didn't hurt, since it took shots at prissy boy bands and showed us Keith -- iconic and thickly-sketched, a cartoon of himself -- quite literally performed feats of strength. Plus, there were explosions afterward. But even if he'd skimped on the fireworks and had followed it up with a pitch for pudding pops or Amway or something, nobody would have given a shit. Only way he could piss these fans off is if he went Taliban or let a Dixie Chick come first.
What didn't surprise me was the love in the room.
Nashville suits might choose who gets a shot at the charts, but the singers who receive true stardom are mandated by the folks. Get 'em to love you, and they'll keep loving you. That's where the suits' power fails: formula can build a star up, and it can keep a star burning, but it can't inspire that true love from an audience -- it can't make a star ignite. That takes hits so true and (seemingly) personal that they'd be impossible from another performer: "Billie Jean," "Friends in Low Places," "Gin and Juice." And "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," Keith's bombs-over-Kabul kick-ass-terpiece, which does exactly what great pop does: says what millions are already feeling, only with greater persuasive power than the rest of us can muster.
It's worth a fresh listen. (And it's un-embeddable because those suits hate you.)
That terse opening builds to a terser riff, then an angry verse, and the tough-guy boast "We lit up your world like the 4th of July." The anger swells to a rage only relieved, on the chorus, by the dark joy of retribution. The song, which Keith wrote himself, is such a firebomb that a Nader-voting stooge like me could only get around to appreciating it now. Back then, it seemed the sound of an entire country Hulking out.
Still, I regret that Keith took so much shit from the left for saying what he thought, especially considering the left was disgusted at the right for doing the same thing (albeit on a lunatic scale) to the Dixie Chicks. I also regret that critics back in the early 2000s tended to dismiss Keith's extremes as reprehensible while sticking up for Eminem's. What seems jingoistic in "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" is for millions just cold truth-- who would claim the same of the matricide in "Kim"?
Not long after Keith's greatest hit, the lynching fantasy "Beer For My Horses" kicked up its own controversy, partly because Keith and friend-of-Snoop Willie Nelson sing about how they'd like to string up "gangsters" and "bad boys." (Also on their list: car-thieves, murderers, abusers, the corrupt, Timothy McVeigh, generalized "evil forces".) I love the song, and I find the execution fantasy odious, but I have to ask this of those who oppose Keith on principle: How is his frontier justice any more reprehensible than the street-justice of much hip-hop? It's just more big talk to ease whatever culturally specific powerlessness is dogging the artist's fanbase.
Those two hits weren't formula, and they made Keith a star. A real star. Follow=ups like the bathetic "American Soldier" and the fantastic "I Love This Bar" are formula, but bright-burning: they seem made of the same stuff as his best. Sadly, it's been all formula since Keith's Gulf War apex, but now that he's loved by the folks, it's enough. Some of it's ace: "As Good As I Once Was," "Lost You Anyway," "Get Drunk and be Somebody." Some of it sounds like he'll try any production trick to land a radio hit: "She's a Hottie," "Stays in Mexico." The goofy island bounce "Big Blue Note" could play under a menu on Mario Kart. That there is the only one thing worth getting mad at Toby Keith about: That he's no longer moved to write songs urgent enough to piss me off - or that mean more than other people's.
Anyway, the show.
Part drunken throwdown, part nationalist revival, above all else, Friday night was a heartland boogie-rock show, one with a band as crisp as a speedway pit crew, and almost as anonymous. Like most Nashville stars, Keith reins his boys in, daring few moments when the audience might be alienated by not being able to holler along. A shame, since his band attacked "American Ride" with a single-mindedness that the scattered, over-produced radio-version lacks. (It steals the riff from "Pictures of Matchstick Men.") They powered the simple boogie "Big Dog Daddy" into memorable rock-and-roll; a three-piece horn section richened the sound without weighing it down.
Lickety-split, as soon as they knocked one song out, they had the next set up, each played like there's just one right way to play it. Not for the first time I thought of Broadway at a modern country concert. Instead of songs to explore, these are numbers to work through. Keith managed a few surprises: going up, with a touch of Dr. Demento, to exclaim "I Love This Bar!"; pulling off the dork-rap of "I Wanna Talk About Me" with greater flow than the original; changing the phrase "ordinary" to "shitty little" in the phrase "ordinary cars"; the way even his pot song encourages traditional values; rocking the fuck out on Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" right before the encore. He turned the band loose on that last one, and the guitar-squalls cheered me, but the crowd around me looked perplexed.
All was forgiven, though, for the climax: Keith's most patriotic songs, scored to WWE pyro effects. "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" still burns, and it warrants such treatment. It also would excuse more personal moments. You know, the kind of non-formulaic humanity that made people love him in the first place.
Toby Keith set list
Big Dog Daddy
I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight
She's A Hottie
God Love Her
I Wanna Talk About Me
Let's Get Drunk and Be Somebody
You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This
Who's Your Daddy
As Good As I Once Was
I Love This Bar
Should Have Been a Cowboy
I'll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again
Beer For My Horses
How Do You Like Me Now?
A Little Less Talk, And A Lot More Action
Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue
[NOTE: Keith also did "She Never Cried in Front of Me," but I forget when.]
Man-mountain Trace Adkins opened. He stomped around the stage like a dad too angry to think of anything to say next. His drummer worked the kick-drum so cruelly I wish kick-drums had a union. I could pick neither words nor individual instruments out of the hot-sludge mix.
Adkins once was a promising honky-tonker with a voice with six basements. Now he closes with "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." He wrote a book outlining his political views. I wish he'd have put them in heartfelt songs instead.
Trace Adkins set list
[I did my best with these.]
Kick Drum Sludge
Swing Batter Baseball Song
Sludgy Kick Drum
Trace Adkins is Still Singing
The Song Where I Stared At Trace Adkins' Guitar Player's Hands And Still Couldn't Hear Guitar Over the Kick Drum Sludge
Kick Drum Sludge
This Next One Better Be the Last One
One That Might Be Called "You're Gonna Miss This?"
Kick Drum Sludge
Jesus, Trace Adkins Looks Like Mark McGwire Dressed as the Cowardly Lion
Honky Tonk Badonkadonk