Toby Keith has employed a few personas over the course of his two-decade career.
The Oklahoma-born singer started off as a tuneful neo-traditionalist before hitting it big as a political firebrand in the wake of 9/11, and paved the way for today's "bro country" superstars with a series of party anthems before settling in as something like country music's answer to Jimmy Buffett (complete with a chain of restaurants bearing his name). Keith played up all of these sides Sunday night at Ak-Chin Pavilion, fronting a big band that deftly folded in elements of rock 'n' roll, New Orleans swing, hip-hop backbeats, and traditional honky-tonk into Keith's swing-for-the-rafters set.
"This is the hottest I've been in a long time. What the hell?" Keith chuckled as his band wrapped up "Whiskey Girl," from 2003's Shock'n Y'all.
The crowd didn't mind the heat, swigging from tall domestics as Keith and his band tore through songs like "Talk About Me," "American Ride," and "Beers Ago." Opening the summer-long Country Megaticket concert series at Ak-Chin Pavilion, Keith was confidently laid back for the entirety of his 23-song set, singing about trucks (Ford trucks, the video imagery and banners made clear), girls, parties, America, and drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. "Who else out there is drinking besides me?" Keith asked to cheers.
Reaching into his back catalog, Keith pulled out early hits like "Who's That Man" from his debut Boomtown and "Dream Walkin'" from the album of the same name. He joked he was "surprised" to remember the '90s-era songs, but it was clear that Keith relished the chance to incorporate the lyrical, reflective songs into his otherwise rowdy set. Compared to songs like "Red Solo Cup" (performed last night as a jaunty novelty hit) and "Who's Your Daddy," these early songs were reminders of how soulful Keith can sound when he turns the sheen and pyrotechnics down.
Though Keith is best known for the blustery "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)", which upped the politicized tone in country music as America went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Keith preaches a strictly centrist view these days (he's even admitted to voting Democrat). He grouped his two new singles together on stage, the moralizing but musically engaging "35 MPH Town," and the barroom sing-a-long "Drunk Americans," in which Keith sings of a utopian saloon in which Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, and people in "ball caps and turbans" all put aside their differences and share a drink. The inclusiveness is admirable, but Keith uses the racial slur "redskin" all too casually, as a cheap contrast for a "cowboy" in the song, cutting a clear divide between his idealistic themes and his very specific lyrical practices. In Toby's imaginary bar, we're all the same — but the value of our differences seems to get lost in his shuffle to make sure everyone gets along.
After a thundering rock 'n' roll finish of "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action," Keith and band returned for "American Soldier." Keith then invited retired staff sergeant Ricky Ray Jr. and his wife Elizabeth on stage, where the Project Rebuild Military Warriors Support Foundation awarded the couple a mortgage-free home in thanks for Ray's service in Iraq, where his convoy was hit by an IED. Keith led the band into the set-closing "Courtesy the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)". Jingoistic to the maximum, the song doesn't speak to the level of sacrifice our veterans have made, but to paraphrase Keith himself, the action of honoring Ray's service made up for most of the talk.
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Who: Toby Keith at Ak-Chin Pavilion.
Overheard: "Did you see that Def Leppard is coming? I love Def Leppard!"
Personal Bias: Surreal reading on my phone about parts of the Patriot Act expiring while watching a Toby Keith show.