CHICAGO — Could there be a greater dichotomy than this? First, an elaborate, professionally-produced three-hour concert for 19,000 at an arena. Then, an unrehearsed and rowdy-as-hell post show for 1,200 at a nightclub. That’s the lure of country music, thanks to the stamina of guys like Tim McGraw and wife Faith Hill.
McGraw & Hill’s Soul2Soul tour came to Chicago’s United Center Friday night (July 13), but the climax of the night wasn’t even the concert itself. Earlier in the day, local radio station WUSN (US99) announced McGraw would be performing a Bread & Water show at the Chicago House of Blues after the United Center event. McGraw began staging the impromptu Bread & Water shows in 2000 as an opportunity to perform in small clubs while raising money for charity.
Starting at 9 a.m., fans stood in line at the House of Blues to buy tickets, the proceeds of which benefited the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls of Chicago and the couple’s Neighbor’s Keeper Foundation. Then after the big arena show, the music started up all over again at around 12:45 a.m. And it wasn’t over until the House of Blues management and fire marshals literally kicked McGraw off the stage at 4:30.
Because of the loose nature of the show, it was hard to keep track of how many songs McGraw and Hill each sang. With help from Chicagoan Jim Belushi, star of the sitcom According to Jim, on harmonica and background vocals throughout the night, McGraw did unreleased tunes from his latest album, Let It Go, like “Kristofferson,” “Whiskey and You” and Eddie Rabbitt’s 1979 No. 1, “Suspicions.” But he also reached way back into the bag of his hits for crowd-pleasers like “Indian Outlaw” and “I Like It, I Love It.”
Cover songs are often a staple at country concerts, and this one gave McGraw the opportunity to do more than just the usual fare. Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” gave the show a few more elements of surprise. Hill assumed the role of backup singer on a handful of his tunes before breaking out her own set list of songs so unfamiliar to her, she had to keep a page of lyrics in front of her the whole time. ” I got me a cheat sheet,” she admitted, looking fresh and casual in jeans and a green silk baby-doll tunic.
Before McGraw took the stage at 2 a.m., country newcomers Halfway to Hazard and Lance Miller took turns warming up the crowd. Both gave solid performances, but the crowd wanted McGraw and Hill. When fans starting chanting “Tim, Tim, Tim,” Lance Miller pointed to one man and said, “To that guy giving me the thumbs down, I’m gonna give you a boot in the ass.”
Not the friendly crowd banter you’d expect, but the tension was high. When Miller joined McGraw later in the night (OK, morning), McGraw said “Lance, show me that asshole. Oh, look … he’s hiding behind his girlfriend.”
While McGraw usually plays the part of the sweet country crooner, this informal post-show was a way to showcase his full-on partying badboy side — right down to his painted-on Guess jeans and flirty white shirt unbuttoned far enough to see his assortment of necklaces. But his gold belt charms — with the letters F, G, M and A — reminded the crowd that his wife and their three daughters, Gracie, Maggie and Audrey, are the only women in his life.
And all of that happened after a three-hour performance at the United Center.
Taylor Swift opened the arena show with a half-hour set of “Teardrops on my Guitar,” “Tim McGraw” and other songs from her debut album. Even at 17, she know how to work a big crowd. Sometimes it’s not enough to just sing your songs, especially when you’re doing it to a half-empty stadium while latecomers are still trying to find their seats, so her stories, guitar-playing and dancing around the stage only make her more likeable to her growing posse of fans.
McGraw and Hill’s opening duet, a cover of alt-rock band Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” was well done, yet an odd choice for the overwhelming number of pure country fans who might’ve preferred an actual McGraw or Hill song. The stage, much like last year’s production, was an iron-cross set up. With a round stage in the middle of the arena and four high catwalks off of it, it gave every one in the place a chance to see the artists up close for a portion of the show.
Hill’s vocals seemed to get off to a rough start, but she eased into her own part of the show with standards like “Wild One” and “The Secret of Life.” And when she sang her new single, “Lost,” she dedicated it to all the “tight, tight lovers” in the crowd. Hill’s maternal side got the best of her every time a little girl reached up from the floor seats to touch her.
“I just have to meet these girls,” she said, “but I don’t want to split my suit.” The suit, a white glittery backless jumpsuit with bellbottoms, gave Hill’s entire performance a retro disco feel set to country music. And her encore, a soulful take on Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All,” highlighted her love of early ’80s pop music.
After 13 songs, McGraw joined Hill again for two more duets, singing “Angry All the Time” and their 2006 Grammy winner, “Like We Never Loved at All,” from inside a circle of made of sheer netting at center stage. When that lifted, McGraw’s band, the Dancehall Doctors, took the stage, and McGraw was free to focus on his own songs and signature covers.
“I love the hell outta my job,” he told the crowd. In jeans, a sleeveless designer shirt, a black cowboy hat and boots, McGraw rocked his way through 18 songs, starting with the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” and running through all his sure-thing tunes, such as “Real Good Man,” “The Cowboy in Me,” “Live Like You Were Dying” and his fallen-soldiers tribute, “If You’re Reading This.” When it was time for “When the Stars Go Blue” and “Everywhere,” McGraw even picked up an electric guitar to show that he still has some axe-slinging cred. As the audience applause reached an all-time high, McGraw gestured out to the fans and said, “That is exactly why we do this night after night.”
Hill joined McGraw again on the center stage for one last duet, “I Need You.” Singing into a single microphone, the two were close enough to kiss, which they did after Hill changed the lyrics to “Tim, I need you.”
A pre-show for some 100 radio station and fan club guests started the night, with new talents Miller, Halfway to Hazard and Sarah Buxton performing. McGraw and Hill each sang a song and fielded questions from the audience.
The Soul2Soul tour continues through mid-August.