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Toby Keith at the State Fair Grandstand, 8/31/11

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Toby Keith August 31, 2011 State Fair Grandstand

"Is this music intended to introduce the band, or is it just Primus?"

You know what's wrong with country music these days? You know what's wrong with it? Do you? I know: "What isn't?"

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Opening for Toby Keith's sold-out show at the State Fair Grandstand Wednesday night, new country hitmaker Eric Church took the stage around 7:30 to the sounds of... Primus? Primus, really? Or something? What? No, Filter. To the sounds of Filter? You remember that band from the '90s, Filter? I think they were two guys who toured with Nine Inch Nails and eventually struck out on their own, adding some electronic shit to the shit they'd ripped off Trent Rezner, laying the groundwork for local hard rock station 93x as we knew it 10 years before it went... to quote a coworker, "Goth... what's the new word for goth, my daughter is one, ummm... what do they call themselves now?" "Emo?" "Yeah, emo!" Emo. Before 93x went emo. Yeah, Filter, that's it. The song Eric Church chose to play as his entrance music sounded to me like Filter, on 93x, before 93x went "emo" or "my goth daughter" or whatever.

But no, my Googling phone tells me that this country singer is playing neither Primus nor Filter as his warmup music. The PA is absolutely ripping a song by 93x darlings Saliva called "Ladies and Gentlemen."

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Before Eric Church took the stage Wednesday night, they ripped, absolutely pumped the Saliva song "Ladies and Gentlemen" as his band took the stage, his band comprised of a dude with a tiny mandolin in pipe leg jeans and a trucker hat, Church's guitarists playing some "wicked awesome" throwback riffs while standing on platforms climbed upon via stairs built up over the amps on stage. The stage backdrop, drums, and decorative banners were all decorated in a skull motif, the skull wearing Ray-Bans, a Busch Light beer-grand trucker hat, and sporting a lovely brown stache.

Ugh, ugh. This is what's wrong with country music. Ugh, ugh ugh! Yeah, we know you listened to some Metallica when you were a toddler, that your older stepbrother cranked it while he played D&D with his buds in the basement rec room. We know you translated this experience into a love for nu-metal and Nickelback, and you're turning that into your own unique translation of country music that bros and drunk chicks loooooove. Ugh!

These nu-metal aesthetics aside, Eric Church was, as I expected, a good performer. Here's where I'll choose not to discount him entirely on account of his "hard rock edge" or the "hard rock edge" of his (supposed) "banjo player." (Ugh.) I know you're sellin' a shit-ton of records, so bless your pea pickin' heart for appealing to a demographic that can fist pump equally as enthusiastically to country as it can to metal so long as you a. play a quick riff from a hard rock song from the '80s (YEAH WOOOO "THUNDERSTRUCK!") and b. at some point mention that you're a redneck, and inquire as to whether or not the crowd is, as well WOOOOOO!

Sorry, Eric Church. I really do like you just fine, and you sounded great, but your live show was... umm... obnoxious and... bullshitty.

Headliner Toby Keith, on the other hand, is a corporation. "Win a Ford pickup in Toby Keith's "Locked and Loaded" contest - delivered by Toby himself! Text xxxxx to upgrade to VIP and meet Toby backstage! Text xxxxx to donate to the Toby Keith Foundation benefiting kids with cancer or visit Toby Keith Foundation dot come Ford Ford win a Ford!" welcomed fans on the jumbo screens on each side of the stage.

This too, might have been obnoxious, if Keith was not so damned likeable. And the music leading up to Keith's entree to the stage? Nothing new, nothing emo, but "The Boys Are Back in Town." This, I can get behind. There is a clear delineation between Toby Keith and Thin Lizzy that I can appreciate, and so I can understand why someone like Toby Keith might be able to appreciate a little Thin Lizzy while still remaining "country." There is little delineation between Eric Church, and Saliva.

How do I explain this better? Okay, so I like raccoons. And I like corn (sweet, not with a K and backwards R from Bakersfield, though I do like them, too). I like seeing raccoons grab little crawdads from the creek. I like growing sweet corn in my backyard. I also like KORN, full disclosure. But I don't like when raccoons show up in my yard and eat all my sweet corn and then leave piles of their bubbling, slimy slobber all over my porch. Eric Church's melding of hard rock attitude and good ol' country boy lyricism is like that big pile of bubbling, slimy slobber. Toby Keith is like raccoons in a creek and sweet corn on my plate. I don't know where KORN fits into this country music metaphor, except that they're from Buck Owens' adopted hometown

To be more clear, assuming my ridiculous metaphor didn't clear anything up - why do I like Toby Keith? He appeals to a tremendously large audience by staying true to his country roots, without falter or pandering to that Nickelback crowd. His songs may border on jingoism (haha, "border" - they're crazy patriotism at its finest), but I'm gonna be the last jaded liberal to say that's a bad thing. Hell, the man might be a liberal who loves his flag and his American borders and who is pissed off about 9/11, whatta I know; those exist, you know, and in spades.

Anyway, my finer damned point: Toby's been maligned for his "red, white and blue go buy my Ford and go to my bar and grill 'cause I love it!" brand of patriotism, at least, amongst my peers. Fine. But here goes, and eat it, my peers: I like him, a lot. He has a great voice, his State Fair performance, replete with pyrotechnics and a cheerful horn section, was HOT. Hot, hot. He's got a better attitude than I think I've ever seen in a man of his renown onstage - spirited, down-to-earth, good-timin'. He's authentic as hell, and I mean down to the tan line on his damned face that I imagine either comes from a cheap pair of wraparound sunglasses or a cowboy hat. And I won't even say a word about how that Toby-brand cowboy hat I bought a couple years ago had a Toby-style American flag tag obscuring the "Made-in-China" tag hidden under it (yeah, except that I did just bring it up. Really Toby? I expect better of ya. But note: his merch table mentions he is phasing in only US-made items).

He's all our generation has that comes close to what Hank Jr. was doing, and I appreciate that.

Don't believe me? I think this is the first country show I've attended since Hank Jr. where I've smelled a whiff of weed. So there.

And to bring us full circle: the last song of Keith's pre-encore set was a cover of "Stranglehold," and his screaming vocals and rocking band proved he can do classic hard rock better than any dude who's just regurgitating back a pile of bubbling, corn-fed raccoon spit.

Critic's bias: I hate it when raccoons eat my sweet corn. The crowd: Love watching raccoons eat my sweet corn. Overheard in the crowd: When did toby keith go ska? (As trumpet and trombone player came onstage) Random notebook dump: Still not convinced? You love Willie. Everyone loves Willie. Toby loves Willie, Willie loves Toby. At Wednesday night's show, a highlight was when he played the song, "I'll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again," notable lyric: I took one friendly puff and the grim creeper set in...

Set List:

Bullets in the Gun American Ride I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight Made in America Whiskey Girl Lady Marmalade I Wanna Talk About Me God Love Her Get Drunk and Be Somebody Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine On You? Somewhere Else Who's Your Daddy I Ain't As Good As I Once Was Should Have Been a Cowboy I'll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again Get Out of My Car Beer for My Horses How Do You Like Me Now A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action Stranglehold Encore: American Soldier Star Spangled Banner (Jimi style) Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)