Live: Toby Keith Plays His Hits At PNC Bank Arts Center


Toby Keith w/ Eric Church and J.T. Hodges
PNC Bank Arts Center
Friday, September 2

Better than: Most other Ford commercials.

Toby Keith is a hell of singer. He plays guitar, too—a nice acoustic one (when he returns for the encore it will have an American flag painted on it)—but tonight it's not plugged into anything, and it's certainly not being picked up by the microphone into which he's singing. There's a little contraption about halfway up the mic stand that I at first think might work to catch the chords coming from the guitar, but I soon realize that it's actually a customized cozy for his black Solo cup.

But the voice was what drew the overflow crowd to the PNC Bank Arts Center; it's so full, so rich and so effortless. (Keith didn't even spit out his gum out four songs in, probably because it had started to taste like beer.) It sounds best when accompanied by an arrangement that's equally full (hence the guitar players, keyboardists, bassists, drummer and horn section, not mention the on-stage fireworks that occasionally double for percussion) but on a piano ballad like "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You" it has no problem standing alone.

On stage, Keith has the same confidence that's on records like the over-30 hook-up anthem "I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight" (a crowd favorite, for sure). He twice turns the stage over to the rest of his bandmates, allowing them to strut their stuff while he stands off to the side, sipping beer, not at all intimidated. As he walks to the corners of the stage, fans run up the aisles in hope of eye contact or a high five, and men more intimidating than any I usually come across on, say, my morning commute are reduced to being awestruck.

Keith and his band play a crowd-pleasing set full of tracks from the second disc of his 35 Biggest Hits collection as well as tunes (the 2009 shoulder-shrugging "American Ride," last year's outlaw narrative "Bullets in the Gun") that would have merited inclusion on that disc had they been released in time for inclusion on that 2008 set. When it came time for the album-cut exception, he acknowledged that the crowd probably wouldn't know the song but promised that we would all go home singing it, and insisted that it will never get played on radio. When he made it to the tune's sing-song hook—a playful, "But I'll never smoke weed with Willie again" that refers, of course, to Willie Nelson, whose drawled "my pappy and grandpappy" is one of the few things redeeming their collaboration "Beer for My Horses"—it became clear that while B and C were definitely true, A was mostly false; more than a few fans howled along with Keith and the cannabis-themed animations that graced the big screen.

After drawing down his 17-song set with "How Do You Like Me Now?" and "A Little Less Talk & A Lot More Action," Keith returned to sing his tribute to troops, "American Soldier." For once, his body gestures revealed a slight lack of confidence. Perhaps in deference to the vets in the crowd or his American solider dad, he held his hands close to his chest. It was a touching display, but one that unfortunately meant that he was saving the worst—jingoist anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue"—for last. So I left uncomfortable, with a lump in my chest made worse by under-cooked and over-salted French fries, but still having seen a performance well worth the long trip to Holmdel.

Critical bias: Came as much for Keith as for opener Eric Church, who punted a great opportunity by not closing his lone New Jersey set with "Springsteen," his ode to listening to the Boss while growing up.

Random notebook dump: Despite the lyrics to "I Love this Bar," beers didn't come in mason jars but $11-$13 plastic cups. Here, Toby Keith's merchandising people punted another great opportunity.

Setlist:
Bullets in the Gun
American Ride
I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight
Made in America
Whiskey Girl
I Wanna Talk About Me
Me and God Love Her
Get Drunk and Be Somebody
Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You?
Who's Your Daddy?
As Good as I Once Was
I Love This Bar
Should've Been a Cowboy
Weed with Willie
Get Out of My Car
Beer for My Horses
How Do You Like Me Now?
A Little Less Talk & A Lot More Action
--
American Solider
Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)

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