August 5, 2011
"Never apologize for being patriotic!" Toby Keith calls as he gladhands soldiers in full desert camo, as his pyrotechnicians light up the sky, as tens of thousands stomp and holler, hoisting their beers and waving teensy American flags, still worked up from "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue," his infamous signature hit, the one about the U.S. raining hellfire down on a desert night.
The song is a rabble-rousing masterwork, a lib-baiting boot-in-the-ass of the Taliban, a marvel of spleen-venting and crack Nashville craftsmanship that declares in direct, memorable language exactly what millions feel, which is exactly what country music does.
"Never apologize for being patriotic" isn't a Keith lyric. It's his sign-off, a bit of show's-over showbiz somewhere between a president's "God bless America" and Carol Burnett tugging on her ear to send love to her grandma. It's also weirdly passive-aggressive: Rather than declare "I love my country!" and move on, Keith is selling that same narrative of nationalistic defiance familiar from cable TV and talk radio. (And T-shirts. He's selling T-shirts.)
The underlying assumption of the statement -- and those shirts, where the slogan is printed over a star-spangled hand flipping the bird -- is that anyone who actually feels some pride in America is a rebel standing defiant before some hateful power, presumably the left.
Seriously, guys, nobody's asking you to apologize. I love my country, too, but I don't go around being a dick about it.
Here's a fun game to play if you ever wind up at a Toby Keith show: hashmark each American flag and each Ford logo. Which shows up more often?
Anyway, with his Easy Money band, Keith knocked out some 20 hits in just under two hours. Having recently suffered laryngitis, Keith was in weaker-than-usual but still-strong voice, sometimes as bellicose as his rep, but more often wry (on the proto-nerdcore "I Wanna Talk About Me"), or wistful ("I Should Have Been a Cowboy"), and on "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine On You?" all-American-songbook sincere. Performed with just piano, and an appealing ache in his voice, that spare early hit was a revelation: Keith, that big 'ol hunk of American beef, got as tender as veal.
He's often more commanding than charismatic, sometimes even a bit diffident when he isn't doing the patriotic stuff, so this vulnerability was especially welcome: a glimpse of the earnest young songwriter who, years later, would grow into the cartoonish superstar.
Your mileage may vary, but I find a solid half-dozen of Keith's hits to be as good as contemporary country gets. (Especially "Beer for My Horses," "As Good as I Once Was," "I Love This Bar," "God Love Her," and "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.") If you're of the opinion that country music should sound like it did forty or thirty or twenty years ago, or whenever its sonic signifiers last struck you as pure, you're missing out.
Like all current popular music, country is deep in its decadent magpie playlist phase: Every song is made up of bits of all the other songs its listeners might be familiar with, so it's not weird at all that Keith's "American Ride" steals from "Pictures of Matchstick Men" or that "Bullets in the Gun" is stompy Southern rock or that over "Who's Your Daddy" you could totally sing "Break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar."
That goes for setlists, too. Anyone holding to some last-century ideal of genre distinctions will be alarmed to know that seven songs in Keith's band played "Lady Marmalade." (Back-up singer Mica Roberts took the honors while Keith looked on, resembling nothing so much as a cowboy-hatted Mark McGwire pacing the on-deck circle.) Later, Keith shrieked though Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold," because, really, much of today's country audience is also the '70s and '80s classic, hard, and hair-rock audience. This is less a betrayal of country tradition than it is an acknowledgement that people -- or at lest their radio presets -- contain multitudes.
For a finger-giving badass, Keith can be demure. His pot song, "I'll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again," is abstemious, although his set gave a mixed message:
And, hey, here are the soldiers Keith brought onstage for the climax. Thanks for your service, guys!
The band was strong, handling straight-ahead boogies, a bit of trad pedal-steel honky tonk, lots of heartland and Southern rock, some Nugent sleaze, a little disco funk, a Darius Rucker-style shuffle, about thirty seconds of two-step, and two plodding comedy numbers, first the pot song and then Keith's new gem, "Get Out of Your Clothes or Get Out of My Car."
Sometimes there were flags. Sometimes explosions. And mostly inaudible horn section, for some reason. And a five-minute Ford commercial. (No exaggeration -- I timed it.) And always finely crafted rock/country songs torn into by a versatile band with grit, polish, and heart to burn for a crowd caught up not just in the music or the star's persona but in some larger idea of who we all are together. Anyone who thinks anyone there needs to apologize can suck it.
Oh, and Eric Church is a fascinating star on the rise whose biggest hit is a pro-pot, anti-Obama kinda/sorta hip-hop number, and whose most recent, "Homeboy," dresses down a white kid for selling drugs. (It's touchy.) I only caught his last two songs, unfortunately, so I'll keep my mouth shut except to say, first, that he's the first country star since Keith's 9/11 high-water mark to dare to unleash singles that might piss some people off. Second, any enemy of Rascal Flatts is a friend of mine.
Bullets in the Gun
Just Talkin' Bout Tonight
Made in America
I Wanna Talk About Me
God Love Her
Get Drunk and Be Somebody
Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You?
Might End up Somewhere Else
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
Get Out of Your Clothes or Get Out of My Car
Beer For My Horses
How Do You Like Me Now?
A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action
Star Spangled Banner guitar solo
Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue