After all these years together, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill sure know how to make a country fan feel at home. When their Soul2Soul II tour stopped at Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center on Saturday night (July 29), both singers spent nearly as much time shaking hands and chatting with the audience as they did belting out their hits.
"We have been so nervous about this show because this is our hometown," Hill declared from the stage, adding that many of their friends and family could be found in the sold-out crowd. "I'll just be flat-out, completely honest. And you made us feel welcome."
Well, as welcome as a Nashville audience is capable of, anyway. In any other city, Hill's magnificent rendition of "Let Me Let Go" would have brought the thousands of people to their feet. Here, it received a little better than polite applause, despite its masterful delivery. She chastised one section of the audience in the middle of "This Kiss," asking, "Why are you sitting down?" and then flubbed the next lyric waiting for an answer. But she regained her foothold pretty quickly and eventually lost herself in the passionate ballad.
When she got around to "Breathe," it took about a minute to figure out what she was even singing because she has added hand-claps and a syncopated beat to the intro, and she now encourages audience participation. (Plus, she wasn't lying down on the stage in a bed sheet. That song and its video are forever intertwined.) Later on, she switched "Piece of My Heart" into a straight-ahead rocker and sat down to sing a moving rendition of "Cry," her adult contemporary hit from a few years back, accompanied by her acoustic guitar player. On both counts, she sounded at the top of her game. Proud of her gospel influences, she also added a few hymns to the set, including "I Surrender All," a request from a young Texan in the audience.
If you catch the show expecting a litany of Hill's early hits arranged to sound just like the original recordings, you'll be disappointed. No "Wild One," no "It Matters to Me," no "Let's Go to Vegas," but you will hear plenty of songs from her latest album, Fireflies. As expected, everything's delivered with booming notes and big finishes.
The same goes for McGraw. No "Indian Outlaw," no "Not a Moment Too Soon," no "Everywhere," but several new tracks a casual fan might not recognize, including "My Little Girl," a pleasant song he wrote for the upcoming film Flicka, in which he also stars.
Judging from audience response, McGraw's highlights included "Where the Green Grass Grows," "The Cowboy in Me" and "When the Stars Go Blue." And it's impossible not to enjoy "I Like It, I Love It" and "Something Like That" at least a little bit. He also rallied the crowd to keep cheering after "Live Like You Were Dying," his Grammy-winning crossover hit. "That's why I do this for a living!" he exclaimed amid the roar.
McGraw effusively thanked the fans after the perennial favorite, "Don't Take the Girl," which he said he recorded "a long, long time ago. I think it was 1992." Now 39, McGraw added that he hoped to be making music on the road for many more years "if I can still fit into these jeans." His goatee is barely there these days, lending him an unexpected baby face.
McGraw could fill a two and a-half hour set with all of his hits (and has done so on past tours) but the Soul2Soul II tour is all about the spark between country music's top couple. McGraw knows it, too. When singing "It's Your Love," he humbly gestured toward Hill, who was far across the other side of the stage, when he sang the lyric, "Better than I was/More than I am/And all of this happened/ By taking your hand." For some reason, they barely looked at each other on their other hit duets, including "Angry All the Time," "Let's Make Love" and the spot-on set opener, "Like We Never Loved at All." There's a place for drama, too, but come on, we want romance!
All of these stage maneuvers could have been schmaltzy, but McGraw and Hill somehow avoided the cheese factor -- except maybe for some unusual song choices during the encore. With the stage set up in-the-round, everybody had a close look at both stars (and several rear views, too), and the colorful, ever-changing digital floor was stimulating to watch, even if it was almost exactly like the one the Dixie Chicks used on their 2003 tour. But generally speaking, the charismatic singers abandoned the "show biz power couple" mystique for an approachable, good-timing, heart-to-heart conversation with the audience and were paid back with as much adoration as Nashville can muster.