NEW YORK -- It wasn't exactly a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie. When cryptic online ads for an Irving Plaza show featuring Incognito Bandito began appearing about a week ahead of time -- alongside Toby Keith's photo and statements like "the best $25 you'll ever spend" -- there wasn't much detective work required to deduce that the venerable, 1,000-capacity New York City club would be hosting a low-profile concert featuring the country star.
Even so, on the eve of the performance, fans who shelled out for tickets in good faith still couldn't be 100 percent sure they'd see their hero onstage once they got inside.
After a series of hopeful chants of "To-by!" all uncertainties were allayed when Keith finally took the stage. Bearing a battered acoustic guitar and his trademark trucker-on-a-lunch-break look with faded jeans and ball cap, he was flanked by a six-piece band of two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and a jack-of-all-trades on saxophone, harmonica and pedal steel.
They tore into a tough, tight version of Johnny Paycheck's bluesy 1976 hit "11 Months and 29 Days," followed by Roger Miller's good-time "Chug-a-Lug," before Keith paused to tell the enthusiastic but still slightly bemused audience, "This ain't about Toby Keith shit. This is about some of the greatest session players in the world."
He went on to explain that the men and woman backing him have played on his albums time after time, and they decided to book a barely-publicized club date just for fun, figuring, "If they [audience members] show up, they show up. If they don't, f---- 'em!" With a full-scale, summer-long tour set to kick off Saturday (June 19) in nearby Holmdel, N.J., Keith was apparently embracing the opportunity to play whatever tickled his fancy before spending the next three months plowing through his hefty catalog of hits.
After a faithful take on Waylon Jennings' "High Time (You Quit Your Lowdown Ways)," Keith went on to play the only two original tunes of the evening, but even these turned out to be deep cuts. "If You're Tryin', You Ain't" and "Missing Me Some You," from last year's American Ride and 2008's That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy albums, respectively, were never even singles, let alone radio hits. Afterwards, Keith revealed the band had only one rehearsal for the show, adding admiringly "That's how good these f---ers are."
From there on, it was a wild, unpredictable ride through nearly every branch of American music's family tree. Jack Greene's 1969 country hit "Statue of a Fool" gave way to Three Dog Night's "Shambala" before the band settled into the slow, blues-baked feel of R&B hero Johnnie Taylor's "Last Two Dollars." As they moved into the greasy two-step of Jennings' "Waymore Blues," Keith declared "Most of this roots music ain't got a lot of changes in it, you just gotta get the groove really f----ng good."
Keith and company honored another Outlaw legend by sliding into Willie Nelson's nocturnal standard "Night Life" and then geared up for some get-down on a gutbucket-funk version of "Harper Valley PTA." As they worked the crowd up into a roiling, R&B frenzy, it began to seem like a door had opened into an alternate universe where Keith was the leader of the greatest bar band in the world, and he seemed to echo the idea. "How about that for one rehearsal?" he shouted after the song's explosive ending.
The last portion of the almost two-hour show continued to jump from one end of the roots music spectrum to another, with a simmering serving of Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown," a sleazy, slide-guitar-soaked drive through ZZ Top's "Mexican Blackbird" and detours into a hard-country standard, "Truck Driving Man," and Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine." After closing out the set with a sweat-soaked run through the Chuck Berry stomp "Memphis, Tennessee," Keith left the stage sporting a broad smile.
Brought back by a still-hardy crowd, Keith explained, "These are the songs we love and grew up playing," encouraging expectations for repeat performances by adding simply, "We're gonna do this sometimes."
Following a poignant version of Hoyt Axton's Mexican-flavored ballad "Evangelina," the band kicked into funk mode one last time for a burning "Polk Salad Annie," giving the old Tony Joe White tune every ounce of country soul it deserved. A blistering bass solo suddenly slammed things into James Brown territory until the song eventually erupted into a volcanic climax.
Come Saturday, that alternative-universe portal will snap closed -- at least for a while -- and Toby Keith will be an arena-filling superstar again. But the fortunate few on hand at Irving Plaza surely won't soon forget their glimpse into his secret sonic identity as a bar-band bandito.