More mild than wild, Keith runs down catalog of his hits

by Alison Bonaguro

Special to the Tribune-Published September 17, 2007


Toby Keith must've left his testosterone back in Nashville.

Saturday night's capacity crowd saw a different side of Keith. Still truculent. Still unapologetic. But with a lot less of the hard-edged attitude. He seemed, in a word, happy.

And that was a fitting way to end the summer of country music at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre.

Keith stood his ground behind the center mic most of the night, with an acoustic guitar in his arms for the bulk of his hits. At 46 years old, his smoky vocals sounded more earnest than ever. For 90 minutes, he served up more than 20 tunes from his 14 years on Music Row.

Despite the chill in the air, people came ready to live it up. The opener "Big Dog Daddy" could barely be heard over the woo-hooing of the fans packed into the pavilion. It may not have the deepest lyrics, but the instrumentation was well-crafted with fierce keyboards and soulful backing vocals.

Then came the hits everybody knew, such as "Stays in Mexico," "Whiskey Girl" and "I'm Just Talking 'Bout Tonight" telling self-righteous tales of Keith's party-boy ways. But those are the old ones. Current single "Love Me If You Can" demonstrated a newer, gentler Toby Keith.

The older fans seemed to dig the midshow cover of Sanford-Townsend Band's 1977 hit "Smoke From a Distant Fire." Keith sat that one out, letting one of his background singers take the lead. Then he shared a few bus songs with everyone, songs he defined as not so good for radio, but real good live. "Weed With Willie" (about smoking pot with Willie Nelson) and "Runnin' Block" (about going on a double date with your buddy so he can hook up with the pretty girl) revealed Keith's well-oiled sense of humor.

So did his constant creativity with the lyrics. On his 1993 debut hit "Should've Been a Cowboy," Keith took out the reference to California so he could sing "Illinois is full of women, whiskey and gold." And on "I Love This Bar," he added a verse with references to women too graphic for a family newspaper.

Before Keith, powerhouse Miranda Lambert warmed up the crowd for 45 minutes. With her own saucy hits plus covers from Steve Earle and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lambert proved she's got her cowboy boots dug deep into country's roots.

---------- ctc-tempo@tribune.com

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