NORMAN — When your opening act is a Country Music Hall of Famer, it’s a pretty good sign that your show is something special.
Of course, that was already the case with Saturday’s Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert, which local superstar Toby Keith organized in the aftermath of the May 20 tornado that devastated nearby Moore, the town where he grew up.
From Mel Tillis’ smooth opening set to the 10-minute fireworks display that lit up the sky after Keith’s fiery closing performance, the daylong charity concert was packed with memorable moments for the capacity crowd that weathered the steamy July temperatures. Since tickets were priced at a paltry $25, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the stadium didn’t get their money’s worth several times over.
Along with long-awaited return engagements by homegrown talents Keith and Garth Brooks, the charity concert brought powerhouse performances by Brooks’ wife and fellow Owasso resident Trisha Yearwood, former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn, Keith’s daughter Krystal Keith, Moore native Kellie Coffey, Bethel Acres native Wade Hayes, Texas icon Willie Nelson, “Red Rocker” Sammy Hagar and “Swinging” hitmaker John Anderson to the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. CMT personality Storme Warren emceed the show, OU luminaries Barry Switzer, Bob Stoops and Joe Castiglione appeared onstage during the event, and Gov. Mary Fallin introduced Keith’s closing set.
Plus, Checotah native Carrie Underwood sang via satellite from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.
Drawing more than 60,000 enthusiastic fans, the show set a record for the largest paid audience for a concert in the history of OU’s stadium, exceeding attendance for previous monster musical draws Rolling Stones and U2, said Keith’s publicist Elaine Schock. The concert is believed to be one of the biggest in state history.
Even better, net proceeds are going to the United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund. A tally of how much the concert raised is expected to be released in the coming days.
After Krystal Keith, a recent OU graduate who just released her debut EP, kicked off the festivities with a ringing rendition of the national anthem, Tillis’ superb band The Statesiders chipped in the first tribute to the Sooner State with a zippy rendition of one-time Tulsan Bob Wills’ instrumental “Comanche Hit and Run.”
Although Switzer playfully reminded the crowd “it’s no act; he does stutter,” Tillis, 80, showed he still has that velvety balladeer’s voice as he crooned his hits “Burning Memories,” “Who’s Julie” and “Send Me Down to Tuscon.” Exuding folksy charm, the 2011 National Medals of Arts recipient, who was swankily duded up in a tan suit jacket and matching tie, ribbed Switzer back when he worked a crack about the retired coach’s hair into one of his signature songs, “Coca-Cola Cowboy.”
“God Bless Oklahoma and God Bless that good ol’ fella Toby Keith,” Tillis said as he finished off his half-hour set with his 1976 chart-topper “Good Woman Blues.”
Brooks, a fellow Country Music Hall of Famer, brought similar sentiments, along with a boundless eagerness to his debut performance at OU, arch rival of his alma mater, Oklahoma State University. By the end of his show-stopping set, the Tulsa native made it clear that the ordinary divisions between Cowboys and Sooners meant nothing on this day. After a quip about his duties this particular Saturday being easier than his usual on Owen Field, Sooner football coach Stoops even introduced Brooks’ performance.
The semiretired superstar, 51, last played in his home state in July 1997, when he performed a series of Oklahoma City and Tulsa concerts, and he did not disappoint in his highly anticipated return, roaming the stage with a huge smile as he drawled “Rodeo.” He may have flown in after a late-night performance in Las Vegas — where he winged back for another acoustic show right after his Twister Relief set — but the Yukon-bred singer didn’t lack for energy as he powered through a huge hit parade that included “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,” “Papa Loved Mama,” “The Thunder Rolls.”
“How is the greatest state in the union doing?” he bellowed over the thunderous crowd. “Today, the healing process begins, OK? So we will always remember, never forget, but we move forward, so tonight and starting right now, let’s have some fun and let’s raise some hell.”
The roar of the fans got even louder when his Grammy-winning wife joined him on the fourth song for their gorgeous duet “In Another’s Eyes,” which the couple ended staring deep into each other’s eyes. Brooks assured Yearwood she would love it out there as he yielded to stage to his bride for two of her smashes, “She’s in Love with the Boy” and “How Do I Live.”
“I’m a Georgia Girl, but I’ve been an honorary Okie for the last 12 years. And I’m honored to be a part of this community. And we’re so happy that we’re here to have fun and start that healing process. You guys are amazing and you show the world how resilient that you are. God bless you. God bless you, Oklahoma,” said Yearwood, 48, who was dressed in an artfully cut-up “Oklahoma Strong” T-shirt and sang the latter as a tribute to her adopted home state.
Brooks retired from touring in 2001, and except for his recent a five-year stint at the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino, he has rarely performed in the past dozen years. He referenced his semiretirement in enlisting the audience’s aid as he returned with the upbeat ballad “Callin’ Baton Rouge.”
“You’ve gotta understand, man, it’s been a long time since I got to do this all right? … I’m gonna need all the help I can get from all of you,” said Brooks, who was clad in his usual jeans, flashy button-down shirt, white cowboy hat and wireless headset microphone.
He occasionally sounded breathless from belting his biggest hits while dashing around the stage, but for the most part, Brooks didn’t sound like he needed a thing, except maybe to put on a show a little more often. He often finished or even injected his songs with almost primal screams of triumph.
Still, the fervent fans were keen to help out, especially when they heard the opening notes of “Friends in Low Places.” As he predicted backstage, Brooks barely needed to sing as the crowd eagerly wailed out the familiar lyrics.
“God Bless Toby Keith for pulling all this together. A wonderful human being, wonderful Okie. … Okies unite!” said Brooks, dedicating his set-closing ballad “The Dance” to the denizens of his home state.
Short but sweet
Florida native John Anderson followed Brooks’ 45-minute show with a quick 20-minute spin with Keith’s Easy Money Band. His set may have been short on time, but it was heavy on hits: The neo-honky-tonker, 57, crooned “Swinging,” “Straight Tequila Night” and “Black Sheep” in his distinctive barroom voice and closed by dedicating his evocative ballad “Seminole Wind” to Oklahoma’s tribe.
Anderson wasn’t the only one to make the most of his brief time onstage. Two Oklahoma singers whose hometowns were devastated by the tornadoes were each able to make a deep emotional impression with a single song. Belting between Tillis and Brooks, Coffey lifted up the crowd with her stirring anthem “Walk On,” which she recently performed at a memorial service for victims of the Moore tornado.
In a surprise appearance, Bethel Acres’ own Hayes, who recently battled back from a bout with colon cancer, took concert-goers on a trip down memory lane with his signature hit “Old Enough to Know Better” before Keith’s finale set.
Age obviously isn’t much of a consideration for the still-busy Nelson, 80, who squeezed Saturday’s Twister Relief Concert to an already packed schedule including his annual Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth, Texas, a Friday casino show in Quapaw and Sunday’s 20th anniversary celebration for Texas’ The Backyard Live Oak Amphitheatre.
Well-known for playing charity concerts, including his own long-running Farm Aid, the Country Music Hall of Famer got fans boogieing, toasting with their beer cups and singing along as he twanged out classics like “Whiskey River,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “On the Road Again” and “You Were Always on My Mind” while deftly playing an acoustic guitar so well-used it actually had a hole worn through it.
The event’s host joined his iconic buddy for a loose and easygoing rendition of their chart-topping collaboration “Beer for My Horses,” followed by a duet to the country chestnut “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys.” Jokingly dubbed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir” by Nelson, Keith and a few pals stuck around to sing backup when the living legend turned the show into a jaunty and joyous jubilee. The gospel medley of “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I Saw the Light” showcased his renowned band, especially his sister Bobbie Nelson on piano and Mickey Raphael on harmonica.
“Here’s another new gospel song we want to do for you. It’s called ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Nelson said with an ornery grin lighting up his bearded and braid-framed face as he snuck the fan favorite into the mix.
Keith undoubtedly has more than his share of colorful and ornery friends, and the benefit concert followed Nelson’s outlaw country with Hagar’s riotous rock ‘n’ roll. Backed by his stellar band, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer never seemed to stop moving once he got done playing the lap steel slide guitar intro of his opening tune “Bad Motor Scooter,” from his old days with the band Montrose.
“When Toby asked to be here there was no question. I dropped everything. I was supposed to be in Cabo, OK? Now, that’s giving it up. That’s OK. Cabo ain’t going nowhere. I had to be here, right here, right now,” Hagar said as he launched into “Mas Tequila,” which ended with a rain of red silly string.
Playfully noting that his favored crimson matched OU’s color scheme, the “Red Rocker,” still youthful at 65, also reached back into his part of the Van Halen catalog with the power ballad “Why Can’t This Be Love” and a bluesy but still raucous variation on “Right Now.”
“Now is where it all begins. Just like starting over, we’re throwing a party in Norman, Oklahoma, and we’re gonna do it right,” Hagar said as he recalled playing the stadium at a 1979 music festival and praised the crowd for “holding up strong” in the summer heat. “I don’t get played on country radio but … I’m here to have a good time.”
The jovial singer/guitarist did play his rollicking new song, “Bad on Fords and Chevrolets,” which country star Dunn penned. Although they recorded it together for Hagar’s upcoming collaborative album, the unlikely pair inexplicably failed to team up at Saturday’s show.
Hagar leaped, bobbed his curly head and even briefly donned a custom-made jersey a fan tossed onto the stage as he wailed “I Can’t Drive 55,” “Heavy Metal” and the appropriately inspirational request “Eagles Fly.”
“Toby Keith gets my vote for man of the year,” the rocker declared as he bid farewell to the shouting sea of humanity inside Memorial Stadium.
“Play Something Country”
Like Hagar, Dunn made his intentions clear from the outset, opening his set with the Brooks & Dunn chart-topper “Play Something Country.”
As the scorching sun mercifully went down, the singer-songwriter, 60, proved his high tenor has lost known of its magnificence on “My Maria”; dedicated “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” to his horsewoman daughter Haley, his pal Reba McEntire and the ladies in the audience; and took fans back to his Tulsa days with “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” which had its 1990 line-dance-craze-launching video filmed at a Tulsa nightclub.
The Texas native, who told The Oklahoman backstage he considers the Sooner State “as much home to me as anyplace,” briefly shared with the enormous crowd the gut-wrenching experience of traveling by tour bus from his place in Santa Fe, N.M., to Nashville through Oklahoma as the May 19 and 20 tornadoes raged. Mostly, though, he focused on sharing music, including some of his newer solo work.
“I got some girls from New Mexico to come help us out with this song. They heard about this and … they called me and said ‘we gotta come do this thing,’” Dunn said, introducing the all-girl mariachi quartet who played “How Far to Waco” with him.
Clad in black boots, jeans and button-down shirt, Dunn even worked “the 50-yard line in Norman, Oklahoma” into the globe-trotting lyrics of his new ballad “Kiss You There” and finished his set with his heartening new anthem “Peace, Love and Country Music,” both from his upcoming independent album, due out in November.
“In Oklahoma, you’ve had a lot of things go wrong in the past few years. Some pretty challenging disasters have come down the pike. Spent the last three days on the street talking to the people in Shawnee and Moore … and what I found is that everybody that I talked to, they needed to tell their story. What I took away from this at the end of the day is the fact that like, they’re victims, OK, but they’re way, way, way more survivors and that’s because of you and your spirit and what you do,” he said, ending his performance waving a large Oklahoma flag.
During the changeover before Keith’s big closing set, Underwood beamed into the stadium from the Grand Ole Opry. Dressed in a short textured silver dress, she opened and ended her four-song satellite set with a pair of her raucous smashes: “Good Girl” and “Before He Cheats.”
In between, Checotah’s favorite daughter dedicated her soaring singles “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “See You Again” to her home state and encouraged fans to donate to the United Way’s recovery efforts.
“It is always such an honor to play at the Grand Ole Opry but tonight … it’s a very special honor because there’s a lot of extra people that are listening to our show tonight. So I’d like to say a very, very special hello and I love you to my home state of Oklahoma,” she said. “We are all about awesomeness and caring and rebuilding and helping each other.”
The piped-in performance couldn’t compete with the dynamic energy of the live show, and the formal tone of the Opry didn’t quite match the benefit concert’s loose vibe. But Underwood, 30, unleashed her big, pretty voice, and Oklahomans, as usual, were glad to hear and see her.
After Hayes offered his song and prayers for his native state, Gov. Fallin introduced Keith’s closing set, declaring “What a great day in Oklahoma.”
“May was a very tough month for our state, a very tough month for our people in our great state, and we have shown time and time again that when things are challenging in our state, our people come back and they come back Oklahoma strong. And we are proving that we are a resilient people,” Fallin said, thanking Keith and the other stars who put on the show.
As the name of his current tour promises, Keith, who was born in Clinton, raised in Moore and now lives in Norman, put the “Hammer Down,” starting with his patriotic hit “Made in America,” which had its big choruses punctuated by brassy horns and pyrotechnic plumes.
“How you Okies doin’ tonight? It’s so wonderful being here. I want to thank everybody for coming out here and participating in the Twister Relief Concert. Had a bunch of great acts here in Oklahoma today,” said Keith, who turns 52 on Monday.
“It was really special to me because when I was 13 years old, I’d sell Coca-Colas right over there on that east side. Coach Switzer’d hang 50 on ‘em by halftime and … you wouldn’t believe the childhood I had here.”
Playing his first full concert performance in the Oklahoma City area in about a decade, Keith held nothing back. He and his Easy Money Band tore through boot-stomping favorites like “Beers Ago,” “I Love This Bar,” “As Good As I Once Was,” “A Little Less Talk and A Lot More Action” “How Do You Like Me Now” and “Who’s Your Daddy?”
Wearing his typical boots, jeans, bandana and cowboy hat, the blue-collar superstar delighted the stalwart crowd by retooling his popular party ditty “Red Solo Cup” as “Red Sooner Cup.” He then let his daughter Krystal the spotlight to belt her new laidback party song “Get Your Redneck On.”
“I feel the need to give y’all a gather-round-the-campfire song. I wrote this song and I tuned it up out in Moore in a little house that got blown away the other day,” Keith said, leading the tired by still-cheerful audience in another buoyant sing-along to his 1993 breakout “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.”
He toasted the state’s firefighters, cops and first responders with “Beer for My Horses” — it’s a shame Nelson didn’t join him for the song’s repeat performance — and saluted the troops, especially the National Guard members who responded to the Moore tornado, with his fervent “American Soldier.”
Although the star-packed show stuck fairly close to the schedule, it unfortunately ran too long for Keith to fit in an encore or round up a hoped-for grand finale group performance before the fireworks started.
Still, it’s hard to beat 10-minutes of red, white, blue, purple, gold and green sparkles exploding in the air on July 4 weekend, especially after nearly eight hours of top-caliber acts giving it their all for a great cause.