TULSA, Okla. — The unlikely teaming of Toby Keith and gonzo rocker Ted Nugent came about after the two avowed patriots teamed up for a series of overseas USO shows. From the looks of the first concert on the latest leg of Keith’s Big Throwdown tour, the two didn’t see the need to change things up much for a stateside run. Opening Thursday night (Jan. 20) in Tulsa, the show was a flag-waving spectacular, almost as full of patriotic nods to the U.S. of A. as it was of country music hits.
Of course, Keith jumped from regular stardom to superstardom largely on the strength of 2002’s swaggering “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which made him a spokesman for traditional Americanism. That song closed his show as he and Nugent played identical red, white and blue guitars while the audience was showered with red, white and blue confetti. Just before that, he’d done his other ode to the troops, “American Soldier.” The combined force of all of that was so overpowering that his encore, a nicely raucous version of Bob Seger’s “Fire Down Below,” seemed little more than an afterthought.
The show unfurled at Tulsa’s Maxwell Convention Center, an 8,500-seat house in Keith’s home state that was almost — but not quite — sold out. The crowd seemed to be the traditional country music audience, including a lot of young children, although a few patrons gave visual evidence that they were there for the Nuge.
Keith’s 90-minute-plus show began with a video, projected onto the giant curtain in front of the stage, that depicted him and his dog riding to a rehearsal in a Ford truck (a tour sponsor). When they can’t get in the building, Toby and the truck take matters into their own hands and pull the building down — which was the cue for the curtain to disappear. Immediately, Keith and his nine-piece band and female singer-dancer were delivering “Stays in Mexico,” his recent up-tempo ode to inhibition-dropping, as pyrotechnic effects whirled and exploded like giant Roman candles.
Keith followed with another rocker, 2000’s “Country Comes to Town,” which gave him the opportunity to reinforce the evening’s motif by suggesting anyone who didn’t want to call him an American could “kiss my American ass.”
When the three horn players in the band weren’t rocking out with their instruments atop the risers, they were doing dance routines, usually accompanied by the visually and vocally stunning backup singer. The visuals were further augmented by a sharp set emulating a bar’s interior and use of three giant video screens, including one directly behind the band.
Keith’s repertoire was mostly of the greatest hits variety, stretching back to 1993’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” A few big songs, notably “My List” and “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This,” were absent, but most of the rest were there. On “Beer for My Horses,” his No. 1 duet with Willie Nelson, Nelson sang his part from the video screens in a pre-recorded segment that was cleverly and seamlessly integrated with Keith’s live performance.
Songwriting partner Scotty Emerick did a guest turn as he and Keith performed a three-song acoustic set consisting of Emerick’s single, “I Can’t Take You Anywhere,” and two numbers Keith called “bus songs,” which he defined as original tunes they like to play on the bus while knowing they’re not particularly commercial. The two have been doing both of those numbers — “The Taliban Song” and the one about smoking dope with Willie — live for a couple of years now.
The other guest performer was Keith’s daughter, Krystal, a student at the University of Oklahoma. She and her dad sang the classic pop tune, “Mockingbird,” which they recorded for his current Greatest Hits 2 album.
The flag-waving content of Nugent’s six-song opening turn made Keith look restrained. In fact, the veteran rocker came out actually waving a flag, sporting a white beard and camo hat that made him look like a cross between a B-western sidekick and one of the guys from Molly Hatchet.
Playing with bass and drums, Nugent ground out his fabled hard rock licks beneath a gigantic U.S. flag, integrating odes to the president, the troops, the police and the “American spirit.” He even led the crowd in a manic pledge of allegiance.
Nugent and the boys played a couple of his hits, “Stranglehold” and “Cat Scratch Fever.” Two other songs, “Great White Buffalo” and “Fred Bear,” spoke of his love of hunting and the outdoors. Apparently, so did a furry tail that he wore, apparently to suggest his kinship to the animals he kills and eats.
His final number was “Kiss My Ass,” in which he screamed the phrase over and over again above ear-numbing licks, each time appending the name of a different liberal or foreigner who had incurred his displeasure. Somewhere in there, a life-sized effigy of Saddam Hussein was hoisted about the stage, so that Nugent could put an arrow through its heart with a red, white and blue bow.
“Kiss my ass! God bless America!” Nugent shouted, and then left. And looking at the empty stage after this assault on the senses was like staring into a smoking bomb crater.