It's easy to see why Toby Keith is so popular... until he opens his mouth to sing. The 47-year-old singer, actor and tireless Ford pitchman has the kind of easygoing, big-galoot charisma that would make him an ideal drinking buddy. No doubt that's why so many of his songs, which are generally sarcastic without being mean and avoid profundity at all costs, concern bars and the types of refreshements served therein.
But OMG, Keith probably couldn't pass the audition for your average high school senior musical. Tuesday night at the rodeo, his voice - which has almost no range to start with - was consistently flat, with wrong notes littered across songs like "I Wanna Talk About Me" and recent country No. 1 "She Never Cried In Front of Me" like beer cans on the floor of his extended-cab F-150 after a weekend at the lake.
And for someone whose clever, creative music videos have helped him become a CMT icon - "How Do You Like Me Now?" and "I Wanna Talk About Me" spring to mind - Keith's stage presence is almost zilch. Basically he just stood there, hat pulled low over his eyes, strumming his guitar or hunched over the microphone like he hadn't eaten in a week and it was one of those giant rodeo turkey legs. For all the effort he put into songs like the Jimmy Buffet-ish "I'm Just Talking About Tonight" - which drew the one-syllable critique "eh" in Aftermath's notebook - Keith might as well have been a dead fish up there, just with a lot more pyro.
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To a certain extent, Keith's band bought him whatever leeway his between-song patter about drinking with "rodeo girls" after the show couldn't. His female backing vocalist occasionally oversang like Martina McBride can, but - to say the least - had none of her boss' pitch problems. The three-man horn section lent a dash of genuine Southern soul to "Get Drunk and Be Somebody," "Whiskey Girl" and "Beer for My Horses," and nailed the Dixieland interlude in "Who's Your Daddy."
Keith's electric guitarist, meanwhile, introduced "A Little Less Talk and A Lot More Action" with a wicked Joe Perry riff and segued into a seething cover of "Stranglehold" that, considering the song's limited vocal requirements - if there's a worse singer than Keith, it's probably Ted Nugent - was the highlight of the evening. And, to be fair, hearing him sing about "hot divorcees, MILFs and cougars" during "I Love This Bar" was pretty damn amusing.
As many records as he's sold, Keith has obviously missed his true calling. Maybe he shoulda been a cowboy, maybe not, but check out this trailer for his 2008 action comedy Beer for My Horses (which Keith co-wrote with Blue Collar Comedy Tour alumnus and co-star Rodney Carrington) and see if you don't agree.