He’s Toby Keith, and he’s reporting for duty.
Appearing at Jiffy Lube Live on Saturday night, the onetime controversy-stoking country star marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with a confident shrug.
“We always gotta be vigilant,” Keith said. But come what may, “the military is always gonna take care of us.”
Say what you will about the 50-year-old Keith — he’s either an unabashed American patriot or the cartoonish embodiment of reckless jingoism — the guy does what he can to take care of the military, notching, by his count, 180 USO-sponsored shows overseas.
During a two-hour set, Keith introduced “Made in America,” a song from a new album due this fall. Sure to make critics gag and fans swoon, it lamented the country’s dependence on imported oil and cheap textiles before soaring into familiar anthemic territory — with an eye, perhaps, toward countering those who suspect tea party conservatives are nursing a xenophobic grudge:
“He ain’t prejudiced / He’s just made in America.”
In any case, “Made in America” joined the company of “American Ride,” “American Soldier” and “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American).”
A mellow-seeming Keith, who sipped from a plastic party cup as often as he strummed a guitar, barely departed materially from last summer’s set (which occurred, coincidentally, on Sept. 11).
Alongside the hits (including “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight,” “How Do You Like Me Now?!,” “Whiskey Girl” and “I Wanna Talk About Me”) was the startlingly tender ballad “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You,” Keith’s strongest vocal performance of the night. Later, he covered Ted Nugent’s snarling rocker “Stranglehold” with commendable attack.
One truly baffling moment saw Keith cede center stage to a backup vocalist for a professional but pointless rendition of the disco-funk classic “Lady Marmalade.”
Howdid the audience like him then?
Not so much.
Onstage before Keith on Saturday was the emerging superstar Eric Church, who appeared in front of a menacing backdrop image of a metallic skull wearing a Busch Light cap. The aesthetic matched Church’s sound: a feisty combination punch of guitar riffs and heartland traditionalism.
Whether he was singing introspective ballads such as “Love Your Love the Most” or buzz-saw rockers such as “Lotta Boot Left to Fill,” Church maintained an unflappable cool behind his aviator shades.
“I’m Gettin’ Stoned,” Church explained, was inspired by the loss of a girlfriend to a rival suitor.
If he continues his rise up the Nashville ranks, it’s only a matter of time before Church is rubbing shoulders with the likes of Willie Nelson. He’d better beware, though: According to Keith’s “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again,” such encounters can leave one “in the fetal position with drool on my chin.”