CHICAGO — When you have 10 albums under your belt, about 40 Top 10 hits and 12 brand new songs, it must be close to impossible to narrow that much music down to write a set list when you only have 90 minutes to perform. Maybe that’s why Tim McGraw tossed his down on the floor Tuesday night (Oct. 20) at Joe’s Bar and just played what the crowd wanted to hear.
Opening with “Illegal” and “Unbroken” from 2002, it was clear from the start that this album release party would be a lot deeper than just the new stuff off his new album, Southern Voice. He did say about halfway through the show, after he’d played four new tunes, “We might as well play the whole album now.”
McGraw didn’t have time for that, however. He was too busy responding to the crush of fans up against the tiny stage. Signing autographs, bumping fists and reading the posters they’d brought to Joe’s Bar. “You’ve been here since 2:30 in the morning? What do you want? A hug? OK,” he said before reaching down and hugging a woman in the crowd. But then to the next woman whose sign proclaimed she’d paid $50 for her ticket and wanted a hug, he joked “What kind of a guy do you think I am?”
In an orange vintage-wash Chicago Bears T-shirt, purposely distressed jeans and his ever-present black cowboy hat and boots, McGraw looked most comfortable when he was playing the hits he’s been playing since he first started hitting the small clubs like Joe’s back in the mid-1990s. And he was even more comfortable admitting why some of those oldies just wouldn’t work. When someone requested “My Next Thirty Years,” he said, “I can’t do that live. These guys [his band] have never played that. That would be a train wreck.”
And when he finally agreed to a fan request for “She’s My Kind of Rain,” McGraw said, “I’m only gonna try this for you guys because you’re my friends. I haven’t done it in a while. I’m gonna screw the pooch on this one.” He did not screw the pooch. In fact, the song was one of the standouts of the night, with his most heartfelt and pleading vocals playing to a quieter arrangement than the original version of the song. “I forgot how good that song was,” he said when it was over.
McGraw’s band, the Dancehall Doctors, somehow managed to engineer themselves to fit on the small stage, even with two sets of drums. And they backed McGraw like the seasoned pros they are, giving the fans just enough music to fuel the lyrics without stealing McGraw’s thunder with endless instrumental solos. At one point, most of the Dancehall Doctors left the stage so McGraw could do “My Best Friend” acoustically. And to add to the tender more-than-a-lover message of the song, he ran offstage mid-song to kiss his wife, Faith Hill, who was watching from the side.
Even though Southern Voice had just been released the morning of the show — when his hardcore fans were already starting to line up outside the general admission venue — the new material McGraw played didn’t seem to dull the crowd’s enthusiasm even on the darker, more somber songs.
He clustered three new tunes together — “Good Girls,” “Forever Seventeen” and “I Didn’t Know It at the Time” — as if to judge the audience reaction as he searches for the next single to release. But it was “I’m Only Jesus” that was the hit of the show. The lyrics round up the litany of the kinds of people who pray or choose not to, and McGraw plays the part of a Jesus who can only do so much. (And it sounded much more potent live than on the album because they appeared to have left the electric guitar effects boxes at home.)
While the buzz about the new album has focused mostly on the reflective and haunting songs, there are a few straight-up good timin’ tunes buried in there as well. And McGraw played two: “It’s a Business Doing Pleasure With You” and the title track. He did have to hold a cheat sheet to remember all of the lyrics on most of the new songs, but he said himself that the album was recorded more than three years ago. No doubt, the new material will become much more familiar by the time he launches a major concert tour next year.