Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum Bring the Big Hits to Birmingham, Ala.

Southern Voice Tour Also Features Love and Theft

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.. — Tim McGraw and Lady Antebellum have enough career momentum that they could have pulled out all the stops when the Southern Voice Tour 2010 stopped in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday night (May 14). However, both emphasized a strong set list over dazzling special effects, satisfying McGraw’s longtime fans as well as any relative newcomers to the country music.

In his own Southern voice, McGraw phrased it another way: “We don’t bullshit. We just play music.”

As soon as the lights went down at the Verizon Wireless Music Center, the crowd immediately expected McGraw to arrive. However, first we listened to an entire song — Genesis’ “In the Air Tonight” — over the sound system. It was an unusual way to start the evening, but when McGraw finally made a dramatic entrance with “Real Good Man,” the show charged ahead with barely a drop in momentum for around an hour and 45 minutes. He repeatedly shook hands with fans in the front row while singing feel-good hits like “Last Dollar (Fly Away),” “Where the Green Grass Grows” (with prominent fiddle), “Let It Go” and “She’s My Kind of Rain.”

Although McGraw has emerged as a bankable actor, he still seems most comfortable as a country star, smirking through “Back When” and making otherwise calm women squeal by getting up close and personal on “Just to See You Smile.” This is especially fun to watch on the big LCD screens. Even though he’s been playing it live since late 2007, he’s finally gotten around to releasing “Still” as a single. A slower song, but not stultifying, the enthusiastic crowd response leads me to believe he has another hit on his hands.

During a pause in the music, McGraw extended his appreciation to the fans for spending their hard-earned money on tickets, insisting that he wouldn’t let them down. He also pointed out his mother and his cousin in the audience. Then he related to the crowd that he pawned his high school class ring after graduation for a guitar so he could get laid. (“Sorry, Mom!”) Now standing alone on stage, he used that anecdote to lead into the first song he ever learned to play, Alabama’s “Feels So Right.” (Considering that the show was taking place in the middle of Alabama, you can imagine the response.) A few minutes later, he invited the Warren Brothers to accompany him on “Blank Sheet of Paper.” The duo co-wrote the song and spent most of the night jamming with McGraw’s longtime band, the Dancehall Doctors.

After pulling out a few old favorites (“If You’re Reading This,” Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”), McGraw offered a brand new song, “It Felt Good on My Lips,” a fun tune that serves as a clever counterpoint to his more serious material. It’s not on any album yet, but if he decides to release a live project from this tour, it would be an essential inclusion. There isn’t much spectacle — just an ever-changing digital backdrop and a well-worn catwalk into the audience — but the energy is there nevertheless.

McGraw’s career stretches way back into … yes, the pre-texting days of the 1990s. While many entertainers only focus on the last five years of their career in concert, McGraw wisely added several vintage tunes into his set list, including “Down on the Farm,” an acoustic version of “Everywhere” and (of course) “I Like It, I Love It.” It’s also hard to imagine that it’s been nearly a decade since he premiered “Things Change” on the CMA Awards, yet its message is still apparent when he sings it now. “Live Like You Were Dying” still prompts everybody to sing along on the “I went skyyyy-diiiving” chorus, and although they’re from the early 2000s, “Something Like That” and “The Cowboy in Me” are always crowd-pleasers.

Holding down the middle slot, Lady Antebellum somehow managed to keep the crowd standing up throughout their whole set, starting with their opening number, “Stars Tonight.” On the balmy but comfortable night, singer Hillary Scott said that “Perfect Day” would just about describe the evening. During “When You Got a Good Thing,” singer Charles Kelley pulled out his ear monitor and never wavered on the melody. Their 50-minute set also boasts their career-building singles, such as “Love Don’t Live Here,” “Lookin’ for a Good Time” and “I Run to You.”

Sometimes the opening acts get carried away with cover songs but Lady A only included one — a medley of John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and the Romantics’ “What I Like About You.” Earlier in the night, they dedicated the sweeping “Hello World” to the flood victims in Nashville, about 200 miles straight north of Birmingham. Band member Dave Haywood’s piano work underscored the song’s inherent emotion.

Haywood also had a chance to shine with a guitar lead-in to “American Honey,” which Scott sang with a smile. And she should because it’s their latest No. 1 hit, following the massive “Need You Now.” Even though it’s been played countless times on country radio, the bridge of that latter song remains powerful — “I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.” Most country songwriters would try to add a rhyming line to it, but after a lyric like that, there isn’t much left that needs saying.

Surprisingly, “Need You Now” was not their last song of the night, but they ought to consider placing it there, maybe on their inevitable headlining tour. If they ever come back through Birmingham — and naturally the same goes for Tim McGraw — an eager audience will definitely be waiting.

New trio Love and Theft opened the show with a brief set that including a sampling of their singles, including “Runaway.” They also offered a unique take on Martina McBride’s current hit, “Wrong Baby Wrong,” co-written by group member Stephen Barker Liles. They’ll continue on the remainder of McGraw’s North American tour which concludes Aug. 7 in Toronto.