Live: Conservative Boogeyman Toby Keith
He loves his truck, he likes your girlfriend
Toby Keith + Miranda Lambert
Continental Airlines Arena
February 2, 2007
New York isn't a country-music town, and when country acts (even arena-sized country acts) play the city and its environs, they usually downsize their act enough to fit it into a clubs like the Nokia Theatre or BB King's. That wouldn't work for Toby Keith. For one thing, clubs aren't big enough to fit his asshole swagger. And for another, club stages aren't big enough to fit his stage set, which includes a full-size and possibly operational Ford pickup truck, presumably part of the endorsement deal Keith has hooked up for himself. Keith's live show is all grand, vulgar spectacle. It starts with a video of Keith going to Hollywood (he calls it Hollyweird, of course) and rejecting reality-show pitches from an exaggerated array of ponytails; in one particularly nasty one, a buffoonish mixed-race pair of rap dudes attempt to pimp his (Ford) truck, not realizing that nobody touches Toby's (Ford) truck. So Toby announces his own idea for a reality show: Hollyweird suits eating cow eyeballs ("sushi imported from Oklahoma"). As the video ends, a confetti-cannon rains an explosion of fake dollar-bills down on the crowd: Toby's face on the front, a Ford truck on the back. Those confetti-cannons go off five times over the course of the show, an impressive total. Onstage fireworks go off so frequently that the smell of gunpowder chokes the air. The guys in the horn section (two black, one white: to call them the most integrated country band I've ever seen is to say exactly nothing) have some sort of wireless contraptions in their horns, and when they aren't playing their simplistic frathouse riffs, they're doing choreographed two-steps with the one backup singer. Toby closes the show with his bomb-the-terrorists anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue" in front of a billowing flag's digital image while a line of Army servicemen stands at ease behind him. A few of those servicemen ended up in the mens' room line with me after the show; I didn't have the heart to ask them whether they'd been denied access to the backstage bathroom.
Keith's show is possibly the most elaborate and gaudy and meticulously planned-out arena-rock spectacle I've ever seen, but the guy at the center of all of it remains curiously blank throughout. He sometimes looks around and grins, but he mostly just looks bored when he's onstage, unimpressed with the orderly pyrotechnic chaos surrounding him. His voice is a rich, flat, matter-of-fact baritone, conversational enough that it sounds weird when he deigns to hit the high notes on "I Wanna Talk About Me." That's not to say he's a bad performer; far from it. His unflappable deadpan reminds me a bit of the last solo artist I saw headline at this venue: Jay-Z. Jay and Toby both exude warm, commonsense machismo, and they attract fans of both genders by talking to the ladies without watering down their king-dick affectations. Most of Keith's singles are roguishly direct novelty-songs, and considering his catalogue is now fourteen years and two greatest-hits albums deep, that makes for a lot of a lot of roguishly direct novelty-songs: "I Love This Bar," "As Good As I Once Was," "Whiskey Girl," "A Little Too Late." Those songs deal heavily in everyday aphorisms; his new single, for instance, warns that a high-maintenance woman don't want no maintenance man. Nashville might be the only place on Earth where singing about casual sex with a likable shithead candor/arrogance would qualify as a rebel move, and Keith has set himself apart from the pop-country establishment while outselling most of it by walking exactly that thin red line; onstage Friday night, he dropped like three S-bombs but not one F-bomb. He famously snitched out both Willie Nelson and himself on "Weed With Willie," which he'll never smoke again. At the arena, Keith introduced the song with a story about how he called Willie after his recent pot bust and how Willie had been let off with a ticket since the local police knew that his pound-and-a-half was for personal consumption only. A few songs later, Willie turned up as a disembodied Jumbotron singing head, crooning his parts from Keith's "Beer for My Horses." When Keith ventures out of his novelty-song comfort zone, as on the maudlin Lindsey Haun-assited ballad "Broken Bridges," he sounds lost. But Keith's been kicking around Nashville for long enough to know what works; even when he gets emo on "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," he keeps his sentimentality tough.
Speaking of that particular jingoistic war-jam, it's a big part of the reason that Keith has become something of a boogeyman to left-wingers, and Keith has certainly been complicit in nurturing that image. But things get a little more complicated when you look closer: Keith self-identifies as a "conservative Democrat" (whatever that means) who campaigned for Bush's reelection but who opposes the Iraq war even as he plays USO tours whenever he gets a chance. Singing "I'm an American Soldier" on Friday night, he made sure to specify that American didn't mean Democrat or Republican, and maybe I'm naive in trusting that he was saying that even before the midterm elections. Keith's positioned himself as a conservative demagogue largely through simpler means than conservative politics: his macho streak and his persistent resentment of yuppies, both of which might explain how he's maybe the only country star who can sell out a basketball arena in a market with no country radio station. Dick-centric class-war, after all, plays as well in Jersey as it does in any other part of the country. Keith shouted out Jersey from the stage plenty of times on Friday night, but he never mentioned New York even though he was only a ten-minute drive from the Holland Tunnel. That's probably a pretty accurate reflection of Friday night's audience. Before Friday night, I'd had no idea that such a vast number of people in the New York metropolitan area owned cowboy hats. The bus back to the city after the show was probably the rowdiest I've ever been on, and it was jammed with mostly-drunk Southern expatriates now living in New York who initiated group singalongs to "Friends in Low Places" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Livin' on a Prayer." One guy actually shouted "the South will rise again," not something I ever expected to hear after moving north of the Mason-Dixon. But Keith's crowd is mostly suburban.
Musically, Keith practices a sort of suburban cosmopolitanism. He pulls more from recent Nashville history, both in its hokey shamelessness and in its outlaw formalism, but he draws from other sources as well. On Friday night, he sang a bit of Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" on "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action," and his crack session-musician band managed to fit a white-funk slap-bass breakdown into "How Do You Like Me Now." Keith's hooks are husky and inviting, but they can't touch the crunchy, sparkling pop choruses of his opener, Nashville rookie Miranda Lambert. Lambert, a onetime Nashville Star runner-up, has a thin, twangy keen, as perfectly suited for desperate, searching breakup ballads as it is for spunky, self-reliant road-songs. She sneers better than anyone in Nashville and steeps herself in a fascinatingly odd assortment of rebel signifiers, entering to a Queens of the Stone Age song and including a mohawked bassist in her backing band. It's basically impossible for arena-show openers to come off as anything other-than arena-show openers, but Lambert was perfectly content to rip shit as people in the audience found their seats. Keith may be a fascinatingly contradictory pop figure, but Lambert is something better: a genuinely exciting rising star who has yet to release a song that's anything less than great. Kerosene, her 2005 debut, was the best country album I've heard in years, and her follow-up, due later in the year, may turn out even better. Good-old-boy swingers like Keith will always have a place in Nashville, but I'd dearly love to see sparkplugs like Lambert regain the equal footing they once had.