CLEVELAND — After a few weeks off the road, Toby Keith launched his Hookin’ Up and Hangin’ Out tour Friday night (Aug. 11) near Cleveland, but judging from the rowdy crowd, he should have called it the Crackin’ Up and Fallin’ Down Tour.
Keith opened his show at the outdoor Blossom Music Center with a humorous short film of possible reality series he could star in, as imagined by those unpredictable TV executive types in Hollyweird. This film clearly took some time to prepare, and it would have been really easy to screw up. Instead, it’s absolutely hilarious. The ridiculously over-the-top send-ups showed that Keith does indeed have a keen sense of humor and he’s genuinely funny when he makes himself his biggest target. Naturally, the crowd ate it up. (After all that beer, you do tend to get hungry.)
Amid a flurry of explosions and pyrotechnics, Keith marched to center stage amid the flames for “Big Bull Rider,” a rousing track from his upcoming movie, Broken Bridges. After a few songs, he announced that Cleveland would be one of 100 cities to screen the movie on opening day (Sept. 8) at his personal request, then rallied the crowd to stick it to the Hollywood film industry because “they don’t think a redneck can sell a movie.” The people roared their approval.
At that point, Keith screened the film’s trailer (after noting that “they really begged me not to do this”), and everybody tried their best to stay quiet. But rather than following it up with his new single, “Crash Here Tonight,” which is also in the movie, he brought out Lindsey Haun, the largely unknown 21-year-old actress who plays Keith’s daughter in the production. Together, they sang “Broken Bridges,” and then she took a solo turn on the ballad, “Broken.” This was followed by another explosion, and the unexpected jolt and the fun-loving “Who’s Your Daddy?” helped get the show back to its original level of good times. He also allowed his Easy Money band — horn section and all — to step out for a few minutes as he ducked out of the spotlight.
After singing “I Love This Bar,” Keith proposed a toast which prompted thousands of sloshing plastic cups to suddenly appear. To the firefighters! (Gulp.) To the police and highway patrols! (Gulp.) To Homeland Security “for keeping all the terrorists out of here!” (Gulp.) To “all the boys and girls proud enough to wear our uniform overseas!” (Big gulp.) “And … how about one for the good ol’ U.S. of A.!”
There was certainly a military presence to the whole affair, but more from a carnival approach. The Marines were sponsoring a pull-up contest inside the venue (giving a new meaning to “I Love This Bar”), and I think it was the Army that set up a climbing wall by the box office. At least that would be a way to pass the time for the hundreds of people who got stuck waiting in a huge line for lawn seats, for sale that night for $40.25. Every so often you’d see a pair of folks in the audience wandering around in star-spangled T-shirts. One guy actually had a flag draped around his shoulders, and in what might be a new fashion statement, a young woman was trying to trudge up the hill in camouflage high heels.
Oh yes, the hill. Due to some logistical problems with the box office, I planted myself in the yard for the first half of the show and couldn’t see much of the openers, new duo Rushlow Harris and reliable singer Joe Nichols, although they both sounded strong from the top of the green. As easygoing as ever, Nichols opted for an acoustic arrangement for his new single, “I Wait for You.” Though he delivered a solid performance, his rendition was probably too quiet for the audience. “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” on the other hand …
After Keith’s patriotic encore, we all hiked uphill back to our cars as best we could. Located about 25 miles outside of Cleveland, the venue is extremely spread out and the walkways are not nearly wide enough to accommodate the sheer volume of people all at once, especially on a steep grade. Luckily, the shoulder-to-shoulder mass exodus kept the drunk people propped up and moving forward. It was about a 30-minute workout, a bit more if you were stumbling — and significantly more if you detoured off-course to pee in the woods. And the guys weren’t the only ones doing this.
Indeed, women were everywhere at this show. Keith is often perceived as a “guy’s guy” who brings men into the format, but don’t think for a minute that he’s alienated his female listeners. Four out of five times, when the camera panned to an audience member, it was a beer-clutching woman clearly out for a big night. The place went nuts for “Whiskey Girl,” at least from those who weren’t already slouched over.
Watching Keith on stage, it’s obvious from his devilish grin that he still gets a huge kick out of performing, and his enthusiasm spreads easily to his fans. There may not have been a whole lot of hooking up, but the Cleveland crowd was definitely not shy about letting it all hang out.