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Live review: Toby Keith, Eric Church at Verizon Amphitheater

Toby Keith at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater

Toby Keith was already an hour into his concert Saturday night at Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater when he offered to play “some redneck songs.” The joke, of course, was that this burly Oklahoma native — one of country music's biggest stars but also something of a Nashville outlier — has no other kind.

Since ascending to mainstream notoriety with a series of post-9/11 odes to American fortitude, Keith has skillfully (and gleefully) portrayed himself as a down-home provocateur, the only guy still willing to tell it like it is. “I'm a man of my convictions,” he sang in his excellent 2007 hit “Love Me If You Can,” and he never seems happier than when those convictions are in conflict with somebody else's.

Perhaps the boot-stomping capacity crowd was to blame then for Keith's oddly enervated performance in Irvine, where he headlined Go Fest 2011, a seven-hour multi-act show presented by Southland radio station Go Country 105, KKGO-FM. On this night — playing after earlier sets by artists including Eric Church, whose “Chief” is the bestselling country album in the United States — Keith was king, and that undisputed dominance seemed to diminish his natural against-the-grain intensity.

Eric Church, a rising country star

In “American Ride,” he outlined the contradictory dangers of a liberal-permissive society — “Don't get busted singing Christmas carols,” he cautioned — but summoned little of the sneering assurance for which he's known. Later, he took no joy in the alpha-male villainy of “Get Out of My Car,” in which he tells his passenger: “Get out of your clothes or get out of my car.”

Keith lighted up briefly while describing a bit of record-company friction he encountered over “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You,” a schmaltzy piano ballad he sang Saturday with an appealing drunk-uncle-at-a-wedding quality. But that dispute had occurred in 1995, he said — ancient kindling for a fire in need of fresher fuel. 

In a way, there was something admirable about Keith's low-affect delivery here. Provided he's grown bored with being country's bad guy — as several songs on last year's “Bullets in the Gun” suggested — it's exactly his style to let his audience know; for him, a commitment to the truth may in the end outweigh the demands of entertainment. But if Toby Keith isn't a troublemaker, what is he?

The headliner's lack of determination was only accentuated by Church's vehement opening performance, which climaxed when he attached a few verses of Hank Williams Jr.'s “A Country Boy Can Survive” to “Homeboy,” Church's hit about the honor of small-town life. Like plenty of Keith's older songs, “Homeboy” presses cultural-sensitivity buttons; its narrator's younger brother has moved to the city and become a caricature of a hip-hop fan, a transition Church depicts rather dubiously.

Where Keith appeared uninterested in the complexities of his material, though, Church seemed emboldened by his. Propelled further still by the voices of his fans singing along, Church's redneck song sounded a bit like an anthem.

ALSO:

Live review: The Decemberists at the Greek Theatre

Live review: Jill Scott at the Gibson Amphitheatre

Live review: Active Child at the Echo

-- Mikael Wood

Top photo: Toby Keith on stage at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine on Saturday August 13th 2011 as part of GO Fest 2011. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times. 

Bottom photo: Eric Church on stage at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.  

 
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