Tim McGraw, Faith Hill’s Las Vegas Show Delivers the Hits

Personal Interplay Underscores the Music During Opening Weekend at the Venetian

LAS VEGAS — The new Tim McGraw and Faith Hill show in Las Vegas gets underway with a fairly riotous joke before the headliners even make their entrance. As the lights dim inside the Venetian Theatre, the sound system blasts “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” Waylon Jennings’ gently lacerating 1975 hit decrying the glitz-ification of country.

The implicit gag is that both Hank Sr. and Waylon would keel over again if they could see just what sort of extravaganzas are being done in country’s name in Sin City 2012. If nothing else, you’ve got to award Tim and Faith points for a sense of ironic self-commentary.

But there is plenty more to give them credit for and, whether or not Hank Williams would have done it this exact way, he might have as good a time as anybody watching a 90-minute show that’s tightly choreographed yet offers at least the illusion of voyeurism when it comes to country music’s first couple. Seeing the equal partnership between these two, he might even wish he’d made Audrey Williams a full-on duet partner. Or maybe, prompted by the sensual sizzle of the onstage coupling, he and Audrey would just want to get a room.

The room Tim and Faith have gotten for themselves is frequently described as an “intimate” one. And although 1,800 seats ain’t exactly the Bluebird Café in Nashville, it does feel pleasingly small scale compared to the arenas either or both of them have been playing for as long as anyone can remember. Compared to the 4,300-seater Shania Twain is now playing a half-mile down the Vegas Strip, it is practically the Wildhorse Saloon.

It might be the only superstar show you see for the rest of your life where there is no camerawork projecting the stars’ visages onto giant overhead screens. There are some giant abstract backdrops in the glamorous set, to be sure, but not too much in the way of overt Vegas stagecraft. When Tim and Faith put their hands on each other’s knees as they sit and sing to each other in the climactic number, “I Need You,” it’s its own special effect, and you will be able to see those knees from the relatively close second mezzanine.

Does it feel intimate, though? That’s a question patrons may find themselves going either way on. Although the venue size and staging are scaled down, the volume only intermittently is. Reviewing the show for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Mike Weatherford was complimentary but said the show “plays like a big arena concert that happens to be in a small theater. Is that any bad thing? Not if you are down there on the floor when they come walking past you in the aisle. It’s like everyone who tried to buy tickets for one of their arena shows got through in the first few minutes and ended up in the first fourth of their local enormo-dome.”

Weatherford said that compared to the truly downsized engagement Garth Brooks recently ended in town, “This ’Soul2Soul’ is more business as usual. The two stars spend more time tag-teaming the stage for their solo numbers, with only a couple of ’nice try’ attempts to scale it all down to the unique environment of the elegant theater that last housed the Broadway Phantom.”

The Review’s writer has a point, though we’d argue that the moments where McGraw and Hill really click together onstage constitute much more than a “nice try” and that there’s no shame for them in trying to have it both ways, even if the balance doesn’t come out exactly right on the scale of bombast versus get-to-know-us moments.

After that opening bit of Waylon irony, the show properly gets underway with the two entering from opposite sides of the orchestra section dueting on the most obscure song either of them will do during the evening — “Let’s Go to Vegas,” a little-revived but obviously relevant barnburner from Hill’s second album. If this galvanizing opener does not put the “viva” in your Las Vegas trip, you have come to the wrong show from the get-go. Having finally made their way to the stage after liberal amounts of front-section gladhanding, they follow that up with “Something Like That,” with Hill hanging around and singing harmony on something that’s usually part of her husband’s solo set list.

After that, there is the previously mentioned “tag team” approach, interrupted with occasional pairings, and if you had been led to think they’d be hanging out with each other on the non-duets, you were mistaken. McGraw disappears while she sings “This Kiss,” much as you might want to see the titular kiss illustrated, and then Hill is absent for “Real Good Man,” much as you might want to see her gesturing her approval of his boyish manliness. On Saturday night (Dec. 8) of the opening weekend, McGraw even told the audience to “take care” as he left the stage again after “Real Good Man,” leading us to wonder just how long he planned on being gone.

But once it settles in that this is going to be a mashed-up version of one of their Soul2Soul arena shows, as opposed to the successive-sets version seen in previous joint tours, you can appreciate how fast-moving and moment-to-moment unpredictable the set is. And there is definitely a sense of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. When Hill sings “Piece of My Heart” in her own shows, the intensity sometimes seems unearned. When she does it in this show right after McGraw has gotten the crowd on its feet with a thrilling version of “Felt Good on My Lips,” she’s able to take the momentum he established and run with it. Tag-teaming can be a good thing — honest.

They do have their individual highlights. For him, there’s the aforementioned “Felt Good on My Lips,” which graduates from indie-rock riffing to arena-rock anthem and has McGraw going into and working the crowd as if there really were 18,000 of them there instead of a 10th that number. And on this particular Saturday night, at least, he sang “Live Like You Were Dying” like he was dying — in a good way — veritably shouting the line “on a bull named Fu Manchu” as if it were the most important line in the tune. (And who knows? Maybe it is.) No one can sell near death experience in song quite like McGraw.

For Hill, the solo highlight was not the new “American Heart,” any more than for him it was the fresh “One of Those Nights.” As much as she relishes the role of R&B soul mama or anthemic rocker chick, it’s still the Hill ballads that move mountains. “Breathe” continues to be a stunner after all these years, but the secret weapon in her arsenal is the underrated (shoulda-been-a-No. 1) “Cry.” This featured the most inventive staging as the band was carted offstage and was replaced by a series of huge, suspended rings that seemed to have comets swirling around inside them — a mesmerizing effect that didn’t detract one bit from the bitter sadness of the song.

In a measure of how carefully chosen the set list was, “Cry” led into the similarly themed duet “Like We Never Loved at All,” with its line decrying “not one tear in your eye.” Unfortunately, this didn’t mean that we were going to get “Angry All the Time” among the duet choices. Hill and McGraw only wanted to get so bummer-iffic on us in the course of 90 minutes. But we did get “It’s Your Love” and, more critically, the closing “I Need You.” There, McGraw and Hill sat facing and clasping each other, leaning into a double-sided microphone, never more than inches away from one another’s faces. The audience at the Venetian seemed surprised when the couple walked off into the audience after this number, expecting a more rousing climax to follow — but artistically, there’s no doubt that the show ends on its apex.

For sheer fun, though, the high-spirited peak had to be the midset respite when the two took time out to sit down and chat informally in front of the crowd. When Hill and McGraw held a press conference in August on this same stage, there was some chatter among the press that their conversational chemistry in that setting might be more entertaining than the eventual show. Wisely, they’ve gone and pretty much made a pressless press conference the centerpiece of their show. It’s a little bit of a forced conceit, as it now stands, but the nice part is, it apparently isn’t 100 percent scripted.

Reports from Friday night’s premiere gig had Hill aghast in this segment that her husband, for all the beautiful tailoring of his suit, was not wearing socks. At the Saturday gig to which press were invited, McGraw remarked upon the loveliness of his wife’s dress, then adding, “It’ll look good on the floor, too.”

There were some non-randy asides, like McGraw pointing out that producer Byron Gallimore was in the audience and suggesting that every aspiring singer or songwriter should converge on the poor guy afterward.

There was a bit more happily-wed ribaldry when Hill wondered at a particularly “hot” moment if anything was going on in McGraw’s “britches,” and he answered, “It was close.” The audience would definitely not have minded if there were a lot more of these interchanges during the show — and especially not have minded if that stretched the set time past 90 minutes, which seems to be the mysterious maximum for any production in Las Vegas.

Following a fun if not-so-impromptu discussion of their musical influences, Hill sang a snippet of a George Strait song and Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and McGraw did a thoroughly countrified version of “Life in the Fast Lane.” This was good, delightful stuff, even as it made you wish even more of the show took place in the slow lane.

View photos from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s opening weekend at the Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas.