It would be an understatement to say Aftermath wasn't exactly looking forward to this show. Our previous experience with the esteemed Mr. Keith was limited to occasionally hearing his songs in bars and one night spent drinking at his restaurant in Oklahoma City. There was Plexiglas in front of the stage, which we assumed was some sort of update to the chicken wire at Bob's Country Bunker, until the bartender told us it was to keep the band from getting "too loud." Not very "big dog daddy," when you think about it. So it was with no small amount of foreboding that we trudged into Reliant Stadium on Friday night. What Aftermath didn't count on was not only not hating the show, but actually - against all our better judgment - kind of enjoying it. We'll get the bad stuff out of the way first. Toby Keith is a corporate shill of the first water. The show itself was preceded by a ten-minute Ford infomercial in which Keith won some kind of strongman competition against: an Eminem clone, the "Jehovah" Brothers, and some black metal amalgam of Darkthrone and Gorgoroth, all with the help of his telepathic bulldog and trusty Ford truck. The Reliant crowd seemed amused by the antics (including the dog's assertion that he wouldn't mind "tapping" one of the cheerleaders present, which seemed...wrong for a presumably God-fearing crowd), but whatever. It gave Aftermath time to grab another $5 beer. Keith drove across the field in, what else, a Ford SUV. At this point, things aren't looking so great. Even the opening song, "This American Ride," contains such wonderful snippets as "Plasma getting bigger/Jesus getting smaller," which is absolutely what a guy who hopped on stage from the back of a frigging F650 should be singing about. Then came "God Love Her." we half expected him to play the "Canyonero" theme song next. It was somewhere between "She Never Cried in Front of Me" (where we realized, with no small amount of glee, that Keith's about as bad a guitarist as us) and "Who's Your Daddy?" that it started dawning on us: Toby Keith was actually giving a pretty good live performance.
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We know, Aftermath slagged Keith in his 2009 Rodeo appearance, and we're not sure what happened in the interim. Keith was engaging, animated (for the first half of the show, anyway) and interacted effectively with his band. All this in spite of a Rodeo crowd doing its best to live up to Houston's asshole concert reputation (the stage lights almost seemed dim next to the omnipresent cell phone screens). As he played the anti-aging lament "I Ain't As Good As I Once Was" (we feel his pain, believe us) and "I Love This Bar," we slowly found ourselves getting into the show. Even through the tired "Should've Been a Cowboy" and "Cryin' for Me," the closest thing Keith has to Poison's "Something to Believe In." But just like that, the show had to end. The 48-year-old Keith was obviously starting to feel his age at about the halfway point, and the night started coming to a close with "How Do You Like Me Now?," followed by the same "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action/Stranglehold" combo he played last year, and ending with "American Soldier" from 2003's (sigh) Shock'n Y'all. Aftermath noted with some distaste than roughly half the crowd bolted during the "Stranglehold" section, obviously deciding getting home to relieve the babysitter was preferable to reliving their 1970s love affair with the Nuge. Honestly, Aftermath will never be a Toby Keith fan. And while we can't help but cringe at the guy's public persona, he did a pretty good job Friday night, playing a decent set with almost no posturing or polemicizing, and leaving the crowd pretty well satisfied. Even if it was on the back of a Ford pickup.