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Toby Keith’s “Country Comes to Town” Tour

George Petersen • June 2021Production Profile • June 11, 2021

The country artist’s tour is first out of the chute after the Covid shutdowns hit the U.S. concert industry in March 2020. Photo by Carter Hopkins

Toby Keith loves the road and reaching out to his fans, and with more than 18 studio albums and 20 #1 singles, he has plenty of fans to please.

After not performing live for more than a year, this country superstar and his hot 10-piece band were anxious to go on the road again with a new tour. His latest “Country Comes to Town” outing is the first major artist tour to go out since the pandemic struck in March 2020, and it also marks Keith’s 20th national tour — not including his 11 USO tours entertaining American service members in 15 countries (and three U.S. ships) worldwide.

We caught up with Keith’s longtime (and Parnelli Award-winning) front of house engineer Dirk Durham right after the “official” tour opening at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, SD on May 20. We say “official” because the band performed six days earlier at the Coachella Crossroads (Coachella, CA), although the Sioux Falls show was the first to feature the tour’s new set — with a huge, diamond-shaped thrust surrounding the first 18 rows of seating in front of the stage — and full production that will stay with the tour until it wraps up in late October.

Keith was among those few artists that continued to pay key members of their production crew (including FOH Durham) throughout the pandemic. So it was entirely understandable that this tour was not carrying full audio, saving money by traveling with an FOH and monitor rig and renting P.A. along the way. This makes sense, because there’s no point in carrying a truck full of line arrays to a festival gig, where it will stay parked and unused.

And sometimes that approach is a real plus. “For our first three shows, Omaha-based Audio Visions supplied an Adamson E-Series rig, and I enjoyed using that every night,” says Durham. “Sound Image Nashville is supplying the FOH and monitor package with racks and stacks coming from local providers. We also are carrying some QSC WideLine boxes to add a bit of punch to the VIP diamond thrust area. I’ve been with Dave Shadoan and and Everett Lybolt of Sound Image since 2001 — they’re like family.”

FOH engineer Dirk Durham. Photo by Nook Schoenfeld

‡‡         Beginnings

A self-described “Oklahoma farm boy,” Durham, his wife and son also raise bucking bulls and beef cattle as well as three heads of cattle for Toby Keith. Durham actually began working lights and sound for five or six years before he focused on sound. “Around 1985, I had a friend that bought a P.A.,” he recalls. “I worked with him and learned from everything he did and every mistake he made, mostly doing gigs at VFW halls, legion huts and small clubs throughout Oklahoma and Kansas.”

However, after Durham got his feet off the ground, “I became the house tech at Tulsa City Limits for six or seven years,” he says. “I left there to work a huge, beautiful dancehall in Oklahoma on Grand Lake that held about 1,800 people. I had the house gig there and we did one national a month, and I got to know a lot of the bands that played there.” Around this time, he also met Toby Keith.

“A band called Perfect Stranger came through there,” Durham recalls. “They were signed to Curb Records and had a big country hit in 1995 called ‘You Have The Right to Remain Silent.’ I went out on the road with those guys for about four years, which was my first time going out, riding buses and working bigger venues and sheds. After that, I went back to ranching. Then in March of 2000, Toby’s production manager called me and asked if I would go out with them for a weekend. I really didn’t want to go back on the road, but that was 21 years ago, and I’m still with Toby all this time later.”

Photo by Carter Hopkins

‡‡         The FOH Position

For years, Durham’s console of choice has been a Midas PRO X. “I had one of the first prototypes and that one was pretty rough,” he admits. “When a snare drum would hit hard, sometimes the meter would go out. But there were constant software upgrades and updates along the way. They were pretty stable when the production version came out a year later, when I got two — one for FOH and another for monitors. I got started on the PRO X because I had been on an analog XL4 and decided it was time to throw out that rotary dial-up phone and switch to an iPhone. I had heard about the PRO X’s Neutron processing core and how it could align any outboard gear I had with the console, but without any latency. And it works. I’m running two ADL [Anthony DeMaria Labs] compressors, a dbx compressor and Lexicon 960L and TC Electronic System 6000 effects — all outboard.”

In terms of the “money channel” for Keith’s vocals, Durham is using a Midas XL42 preamp strip, which feeds the ADL and into the console. The vocal mic is a Shure KSM9 Axient wireless body fitted with a Heil RC-35 capsule.

Durham is always ready for anything. “Toby reads the crowd really well. He generally tends to stay with the set list, but if it’s a rowdy drinking crowd, he will shake up the set list. Any curve balls don’t mess with me or the band, but it can keep the lighting guys on edge, because all the lighting cues are programmed in advance.”

The FOH crew (L-R): FOH engineer Dirk Durham, FOH systems tech Greg Burns and Audio Visions’ Elliott Nielsen and Jasper Goforth. (Micah Stryker, also from the Audio Visions is not pictured).

The FOH crew (L-R): FOH engineer Dirk Durham and FOH systems tech Greg Burns, with Audio Visions’ Elliott Nielsen and Jasper Goforth. (Micah Stryker, also from Audio Visions is not pictured).

As a road-proven FOH veteran, the “different P.A. every night” approach doesn’t affect Durham. “I’ve been on so many rigs. Most of the systems out there are pretty good, although my favorite box right now is the new JBL VTX A12. It’s an amazing box. When I first got on it, I was worried because it didn’t have 15’s, but after hearing it, I was grinning from ear to ear. Wish I could carry P.A. every time, but most of the shows we’re on are big fairs and festivals and the systems are pretty good, so I don’t advance anymore.”

Durham definitely appreciates his team members on the road. “I have a great job. I’m working with a great band and I’ve got a great crew. My boys monitor engineer Jeremy Overall, systems engineer Greg Burns and P.A. tech Joshua Harper are amazing.” However, sometimes mistakes can happen. “It got down to 33 degrees in Billings [for the May 22 show at the MetraPark Arena in Billings, MT] and half of my guys didn’t check the weather in advance and were wearing shorts. But this skinny cowboy here took a hoodie along,” he adds with a laugh.

Performance shot showing the VIP area with the diamond-shaped thrust stage. Photo by Carter Hopkins

‡‡         A Confession

After all these years on the road, Durham has a confession. “I love doing sound; I just don’t like to travel, especially when we do USO shows,” he admits. “We take a stripped-down band out for those. We’re usually on P.A. on sticks with a 16-channel mixer — no compression, no outboard gear, unless we’re playing something like Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where we can bring in a real sound company. Those are big shows. But what Toby really likes to do is get way out there where the soldiers are in camps — remote places where there might only be 25 or 30 people there. We’ll fly in three helicopters, bringing battery packs, some JBL EONs and two microphones — one for his acoustic and one for his vocal. Those gigs can be a real pain in the ass, but the rewards make it worth it. And some of those shows were really dangerous, like the ones we did in Bosnia, where we had to fly in at night with two escorts, three helicopters and all the lights out. It’s rough on us, and it’s rough on Toby, but we’ll do anything for our troops.”

Photo by Carter Hopkins

‡‡         Picking Up

After a couple weeks off, the “Country Comes to Town” tour resumes on June 20, at the Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott, AZ and runs through Dec. 3 at the Hertz Arena in Estero, FL, with one more gig set to take place in Winnipeg, Manitoba on July 22, 2022.

Photo by Carter Hopkins

For more information, visit www.tobykeith.com and www.sound-image.com

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THE “COUNTRY COMES TO TOWN” TOUR

Sound Company: Sound Image Nashville

FOH Engineer: Dirk Durham

FOH Systems Tech: Greg Burns

MON Engineer: Jeremy Overall

Patch Tech: Josh Harper

FOH GEAR

P.A. System: Local racks & stacks (in this case an Adamson E15, S10, + E219 rig) for the first three shows were provided by Jasper Goforth, Elliott Nielsen, & Micah Stryker of Omaha, NB-based AudioVisions Productions

FOH Console: Midas PRO-X with Neutron

Outboard: Midas XL42, Anthony Demaria Labs C/L 1500 compressor; dbx 162SL; Neve 5045 Primary Source Enhancer; TC Electronic System 6000 effects; Lexicon 960L reverb

Stagebox: Midas DL351 I/O

System EQ: Lake LM44

MON GEAR

Monitor Console: Midas PRO-X

Toby Vocal Mic: Shure Axient transmitter with Heil RC-35 capsule

Wireless: Shure Axient for all guitars & vocals

IEMs: Shure PSM1000

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