Country superstar Toby Keith returned to Saratoga Performing Arts Center Sunday night in full-on party mode.
For close to two hours, Keith and his band, the Easy Money Band, bashed through hit after hit, covering everything from the singer’s early ’90s tracks to last year’s “Clancy’s Tavern.” Though known for his outspoken patriotism as much as his drinking and partying ways, this performance was mostly about the latter — nearly every song performed mentioned beer or whiskey in some way. The nearly full house ate it all up, more than willing to drink with Keith throughout the set.
After a short film introducing the “Legend of Clancy’s Tavern,” Keith and band launched directly into the set shortly after 9 p.m. with “American Ride,” and kept the patriotic vibe up through “Made in America,” which got the crowd chanting “U.S.A.” Things never let up from there, with Keith parading out hit after hit — next song “Get Drunk and be Somebody” was appropriate, setting the tone for the rest of the evening.
The 11-piece Easy Money Band made the performance, crafting a wall of noise for each track performed that perfectly matched the original studio recordings (which if not very adventurous, is kind of the point for this kind of show). Special mention goes to the three-piece horn section, which Keith lovingly referred to as “The Knuckleheads” — their playing helped elevate tracks such as “Whiskey Girl” and the sarcastically biting “Get Out of My Car” to new heights. Longtime lead guitarist Rich Eckhardt also deserves mention for solos on the aforementioned “Whiskey Girl,” and the fiery intro licks to “Who’s Your Daddy?” Throughout, Keith was relaxed, grinning his way through “Beers Ago” and the vocal acrobatics on “I Wanna Talk About Me.” The fairly self-explanatory “Weed With Willie” was a highlight mid-set, with Keith driving the song home with his tongue-in-cheek delivery.
The show built to a climax at the end that, while expected, still proved to be satisfying. Keith barreled through strong renditions of “I Love This Bar,” “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “Beer for My Horses” — complete with a Willie Nelson video cameo — in quick succession, as the crowd danced and sang along. “How Do You Like Me Now?” saw Keith running around the front of the stage, egging the crowd on. The band closed the main set with “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action,” which included a pounding cover of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” in the bridge, an appropriate end to this thunderous set.
Before Keith’s set, Georgia singer-songwriter Brantley Gilbert primed the crowd with an energetic set full of rocking riffs and party anthems such as, well, “My Kinda Party” which kicked things off. This was modern Southern rock with an edge — if drummer Ben Sims’ mohawk and double bass playing and lead guitarist John Merlino’s wah-wah-drenched licks didn’t tip the crowd off enough. Highlights included the drawling, attitude-filled “Dirt Road Anthem,” a hit for Jason Aldean, and the anthemic “Country Must Be Country Wide,” which both got the audience chanting along. Gilbert saved his best for last with “Kick It in the Sticks,” a down-and-dirty rocker with an insistent, chugging bass line.
Up-and-comer Thomas Rhett, another Georgia native (and son of ’90s country songwriter Rhett Akins), opened the show up right at 7 with a short set of likable originals. Rhett was at his best on party anthems such as the snarling kick-off “All American Middle Class White Boy” and the single “Something To Do With My Hands,” with the overall sound being more akin to ’80s hard rock than country. His ballad, “Beer With Jesus,” felt a bit overwrought, but overall Rhett managed to energize the crowd, which was already starting to fill the amphitheater.