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Opening night fun

Toby Keith kicks off RodeoHouston with muted show that is heavy on the hits

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01, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
Toby Keith seemed like the perfect candidate to open this whole shindig. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
12, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
 The show opened with "American Ride" and "Made in America," setting the tone for a show full of pyrotechnics and songs about liberty. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
07, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
Another high point of the evening's show was hearing the triumphant "Beer For My Horses," a duet that he recorded with Willie Nelson 10 years ago. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
04, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
"Who's Your Daddy" found his band in full force, and was, along with "Red Solo Cup," the highlight of the short night. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
05, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
Keith is a fan friendly act who sings songs that conjure up a lot of the same imagery that RodeoHouston does — BBQ, beer, horses, and freedom. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
03, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
 By the time the closer, "American Soldier," kicked off, the stadium had begun to empty out. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
01, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
12, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
07, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
04, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
05, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013
03, RodeoHouston, Toby Keith concert, February 2013

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is indeed back in town.

I can't help but get hooked on Texas when I step inside the gates of Reliant Stadium in late February and get a big whiff of RodeoHouston. The scent of BBQ and light beer is in the air, rhinestones and ten gallon hats are everywhere, and there is an overall reverence for an honest day's work amongst the large crowds trekking towards Reliant Stadium for a night at the rodeo.

Throw in throngs of teenagers on dates at the Rodeo Carnival, which sadly closed early due to Monday night's high winds, and you might have died and thought you went to small town heaven right here in the middle of Houston.

 Walking towards the elevator to the press box, I heard my share of Toby Keith songs bellowed by exuberant attendees of all ages.  

For this reason, Toby Keith, who made his ninth RodeoHouston appearance, seemed like the perfect candidate to open this whole shindig. Though some country music purists may not be comfortable welcoming him to the pantheon of country singers and some fans might not agree with his vocal brand of conservatism, you would be hard pressed to find either type of person in attendance.

Walking towards the elevator to the press box, I heard my share of Toby Keith songs bellowed by exuberant attendees of all ages. I squeezed through throngs of fans purchasing Toby Keith merchandise while curiously gazing at what the booth had to offer. I saw pure joy in the eyes of just about everyone that I passed.

What I've surmised is this; if there was ever an appropriate context for a Toby Keith show, opening night at RodeoHouston is it.

Country catalogue

Keith, now 51 and a 20-year veteran of the country music scene, has a catalog that fits the criteria of what constitutes a Rodeo concert these days. He's a fan-friendly act who sings songs that conjure up the same imagery as RodeoHouston — BBQ, beer, horses, and freedom.

Unfortunately, on Monday evening, he delivered one of the more muted Rodeo performances I've seen.

After a short introductory video on Reliant's LCD screen called "The Legend of Clancy's Tavern" which featured a Ford truck and an attractive girl named "Sam," the show opened with "American Ride" and "Made in America," setting the tone for a show full of pyrotechnics and songs about liberty.

 The Toby Keith that we've come to expect is much more entertaining than what Monday's show proved. 

In case you were on the fence about what kind of show you were going to get, Keith reminded you early and often.

At a mere 15 songs, I expected the set to deliver on the promise of  energy and passion that was built up early on. What I got was a show heavy on hits —only two songs from last year's album Hope On The Rocks were played — that had the potential to sound great if they weren't so light on spontaneity.

The Toby Keith that we've come to expect is much more entertaining than what Monday's show proved.

Much of his set was augmented by a jubilant horn section, adding a bright punch to many of his better known songs such as "Talk About Me" and "Good As I Once Was." But his voice, unfortunately, hasn't aged too well.

Feeling his age

While Keith has never possessed the George Strait's croon or Alan Jackson's twamp (both will be playing at the rodeo later this month), I've always liked the easy-going, good ol' boy quality of Keith's vocal delivery. But this element was missing for the majority of his songs.

Instead, Keith sounded slightly off-key during many of the songs and seldom ventured too far out of his comfort zone. When he did let loose, like on his classic 1993 hit "Should've Been A Cowboy," he did it with gusto. I'm just not sure why these moments were hard to come.

 Keith was not stingy with shout-outs to Houston along with a few opportunities to get into the action, particularly when introducing "Red Solo Cup" from the 2011 album  Clancy's Tavern.

Perhaps he's feeling his age. Four songs in, Keith joked about "qualifying for Obamacare," which received a smattering of applause, after tallying the amount of years he has played the Rodeo, before his band launched into "Beers Ago." If there is any truth to the narrator's claim about the 1,563 beers he has consumed between then and now, then he may need Obamacare sooner than he thinks.

The show wasn't a complete dud, however. Keith was not stingy with shout-outs to Houston along with a few opportunities to get into the action, particularly when introducing "Red Solo Cup" from the 2011 album Clancy's Tavern.

Earlier in the set, "Who's Your Daddy" found his band in full force, and was, along with "Red Solo Cup," the highlight of the short night. Both of these performances were an all-around showcase for his band, which, in the case of "Who's Your Daddy," included a searing guitar solo.

There's always been something oddly enjoyable about "Red Solo Cup," a silly sing-along about the utility of the sturdy plastic product, and Monday's performance took that silliness to the next level. I couldn't help but smile as watched two bug-eyed cartoon Solo cups dance around Reliant Stadium's huge LCD screens.

Show highlights

Those two songs in the middle of the set were the highlight of the show, judging by the reaction of the crowd. By the time the closer, "American Soldier," kicked off, the stadium had begun to empty out. In fairness, this might have had a lot to do with the fact that it was Monday night and the closure of the carnival was announced before the concert began.

(The announced crowd was 51,756. It was the first time since 2008 that the Rodeo opened on a Monday night.)

Another high point was the triumphant "Beer For My Horses," a duet that Keith recorded with Willie Nelson 10 years ago. Before the song began, Keith lead the Reliant crowd in a toast to every government official and public servant, garnering a large round of cheers. 

 Those who stayed to the end on a school night got what they came for. A celebration of unbridled freedom, beer, horses, and an all around good  ol' time.

"Beer For My Horses" has now been performed live in Houston twice in one year. Last summer, Nelson sang a jangly rendition at Free Press Summer Fest that complemented the sunny summer vibe of that festival. On Monday night, Keith delivered a more faithful rendition of the song, that fans of the popular CMT hit could easily recognize.

Hearing this song performed by both of its original performers, in much different versions, to much different crowds, is one of the great things about seeing live music in Houston.

The show ended with a speech from Keith about supporting people who make America possible, to much applause.

Though the crowd may have thinned out before the end, those who stayed got what they came for — a celebration of unbridled freedom, beer, horses, and an all around good ol' time.

After all, isn't that what the Rodeo should be about?

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