Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Keith keeps the flags waving



By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

No entertainer's career has benefited from the post 9-11 political climate quite like Toby Keith's.

In the '90s, Keith was a country singer enjoying modest sales and chart success. Back then, there was no telling it would be Keith, and not Tracy Lawrence or Sammy Kershaw or some other middling hit-maker, who would one day be the hottest of all Nashville performers.

But then came the terrorist attacks and Keith's reaction to them, and he's now a divisive personality bigger than any one of his songs.

Keith closed out the Riverbend season Sunday night with a show that mixed the '90s country-radio hits with the sort of pro-war song and speech that's made him a household name on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. A large turnout sang along to the hits and gave its approval to each flag-waving moment.

An over-the-top 10-minute stretch toward the end of the show punctuated the night's jingoistic flavor. Keith's guitar player kicked it off with a Hendrix-styled fanfare of the National Anthem, as two large banners unfurled from the rafters. One showed the seals of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. The other was a drawing of Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeves with a guitar in his hand.

With that, Keith and his band broke into Merle Haggard's pro-America anthem "Fightin' Side of Me." Keith changed Haggard's "squirrelly guy who don't believe in fighting" to a "Hollywood guy." (Earlier in the show, Keith referred to his record label DreamWorks as "politically correct." Of course, three Hollywood guys own DreamWorks - Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.)

Next came Keith's breakout song, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," a sort of "Fightin' Side of Me" on steroids, complete with the line "We'll put a boot in your (rear), it's the American way."

Keith's made his name with this type of act, but he doesn't need it anymore. The low-key, apolitical moments were the best of the night.

One was a piece of stripped-down honky-tonk titled "I Love This Bar," the first single on the album Shock'N Y'all, which comes out Nov. 4.

The second was a song he and band mate Scotty Emerick performed as a duo. Keith said it was written after spending a hazy evening on Willie Nelson's tour bus. The song is titled "I'll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again."

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E-mail cvarias@enquirer.com




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