It’s fitting that country music mogul Toby Keith was tapped to make a hit of the song “Red Solo Cup,” the fun, drunken ode to the popular party provision. Like the majority of Keith’s mass-marketed material, it’s “cheap and disposable,” made more for the party than posterity. But the brand is built to last, and in a near-annual tradition, Keith brought the cups to Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on Sunday night before a crowd that filled most of the rural venue and responded rowdily to drinking songs and in more memorable, rousing fashion to his patriotic anthems.
The current coverboy of Forbes magazine as “Country Music’s $500 Million Man” has amassed an empire that began on the country charts, on which he’s been a mainstay for two decades now. He has extended that career to huge endorsement deals and ownership stakes from restaurants to real estate. Keith’s concert guests are served samples of his Wild Shot liquor as they enter, and extended big-screen commercials with him in them as they wait for his arrival.
Also served Sunday night were two opening sets from up-and-coming artists. Batting leadoff was Alabaman Drake White, whose intense howl ’n’ growl approach appears equal parts country singer and Pentecostal preacher. Backed by his four-piece band the Big Fire in a winning six-song, 25-minute set, he declared himself a “Gypsy” with a “Cold Beer with My Name On It” before closing with his breakout ode to the “Simple Life” and old-soul Southern rocker “Fifty Years Too Late.”
South Georgian heartthrob Kip Moore followed with a 40-minute set that came off as much adult contemporary as country, especially considering that his four-piece band lacked the pedal steel guitar that paces his handful of hits such as current heat-seeker “Hey Pretty Girl.” He served fluff in “Crazy One More Time” and “Beer Money” around the rockin’ youthful anthem “Reckless,” then leaving the crowd happy with his No. 1 hit “Somethin’ ’Bout a Truck.”
Keith’s 23-song, near-two hour set backed by his 10-piece Easy Money Band was served in his signature style. It was predictable in terms of his shtick and song selection, with the man lightly strumming a prop guitar during most songs and for the most part singing sloppily and short-winded as though he’d had a heckuva time backstage before the show. The opening smirk of “Haven’t Had a Drink All Day” gave way to the upbeat patriotic pulse of “American Ride” and “Made in America,” the latter finding Keith switching to a still-inaudible acoustic guitar with the Ford logo on it.
A slew of songs about alcohol, women and God followed, from the country verses and pop hook of “Beers Ago” to “Hope on the Rocks,” a forgettable anthem for bartenders in which he reached back at the end to pull the best out of his burly baritone.
His “Knuckleheads” horn section had a lot of laughs in singing and dancing along to a new number with the hook, “Get out of your clothes or get out of my car,” one of many of Keith’s own clever lines inspired by extended time in bars, such as the classic country credo of one of his best songs, “As Good As I Once Was” – “I ain’t as good as I once was/but I’m as good once, as I ever was.” That song was sung after Keith declared about “Red Solo Cup,” “That’s a stupid song and I love it,” as two inflatable red Solo cups were taken down from their starring role in the sing-along.
After tossing his mic into the crowd during country’s most-played song of the 1990s in “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” – one of many moves to get the crowd to help sing along with his clearly strained voice – Keith sang “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” as sloppily as a preschooler scribbles.
Keith saved his best for last, however, dialing in for every note of encore renditions of military anthems “American Soldier” and “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American),” and inviting to the stage local military members and paraplegic artist Richard Masters to show off a painting made of Keith in which Masters used only his mouth. Tears abounded in the crowd as Masters sang along beside Keith, who saluted for him and kissed him on the head before wheeling him down to the catwalk to say farewell to the crowd together with his closing slogan, “Never apologize for being patriotic.” When the drinking songs are forgotten, this is Keith’s calling card, and with it his brand leaves a permanent mark on American pop culture.