LOS ANGELES -- The year 2009 has looked to be a generally Faith-less one for country fans. With no apparent impending albums or tours to anticipate, Faith Hill devotees have had to make do with her Redbook photo shoots, along with her assurances that she's devoting most of her creative energy right now to being a mom.
But West Coasters were able to get their Faith fix over the weekend via the superstar's two-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl, which came with strings attached in the form of the roughly 100-piece Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. It was a classy and (literally) brassy engagement, even if it left fans with no better clue than before as to what the recently dormant star plans to be getting up to next.
Hill's last No. 1 single, 2005's "Mississippi Girl," was slipped in toward the end of the set, complete with its second-verse assurances that the singer hasn't really gone Tinsel Town. But she was more than Hollywood enough for Friday night's (July 17) crowd, which seemed dominated more by venue regulars than hardcore Hill fans. There was nary an old ball cap in sight as Hill took the stage in a floor-length, left-shoulder-baring gown, a pink-and-yellow mélange that made the singer look like a particularly delicious and glamorous sherbet.
A Hill solo concert is a rare thing, indeed, since virtually all of her tours have been co-headlining jaunts with husband Tim McGraw. So there was some interest in how she might fill out a show focused on just her. But the relative brevity of the 70-minute set didn't leave room for the kinds of interesting album tracks by writers like Lori McKenna that Hill has gravitated toward in recent years. With the exception of one fairly obscure selection, "Paris," a torchy ballad culled from her last all-new album, 2005's Fireflies, Hill clung to her most familiar and upbeat Top 20 hits, with a handful of R&B-oriented cover songs representing the evening's most adventurous choices.
The orchestra provided most of the juice on the opening "If My Heart Had Wings." But even though Hill introduced famed arranger-conductor David Campbell as "one of my favorite people walking this planet," he and his minions took an extended onstage timeout during the following four numbers, which had Hill's six-piece band (and three backup singers) playing greatest hits like "The Secret of Life" unaccompanied by orchestration. After that extended rest, the string players picked up their bows again for an interesting Campbell arrangement of "Cry," Hill's most underrated single, which might have seemed sublime if the loping 6/8 drumming hadn't seemed slightly at odds with the subtle rhythms of the orchestra.
Hill is a well-known sucker for a soul ballad, and what followed was a three-song mini-set of covers that fully indulged her R&B side -- and helped galvanize a mainstream L.A. crowd that hadn't necessarily recognized smashes from early in Hill's career like "Wild One."
"They are not mine, but they are tonight," Hill said, by way of introducing this segment of the show. "Isn't that nice, when you can say you're going to do something just because you want to do it? No other reason?"
Here, Hill's raison d'etre seemed to be following in the footsteps of Aretha Franklin, who played the Bowl for the first time in 35 years last month. In deliberate or inadvertent homage to that, Hill sang Franklin's bluesy 1967 hit, "Dr. Feelgood," followed by the Queen of Soul's gospel-inspired 1971 arrangement of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" before wrapping up the throwback segment with an evergreen that didn't bear Aretha's fingerprints -- Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed."
The conductor picked up the baton again for a song that really hasn't remained a fan favorite over the years but was perhaps requisite in this instance anyway -- the Pearl Harbor theme, "There You'll Be." In doing so, Campbell was reviving the original string arrangement he'd written for the recording back in 2001. The collaboration between Hill, her band and the 100 or so extra players came to fuller fruition toward the end of the set in two highlights, "Paris" (which the singer gushed was "honestly one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard") and "Breathe." This latter signature song really did receive the breath of new life in a Campbell arrangement that made good on all of the night's promise, with the Bowl Orchestra adding stirring undercurrents of lusciousness and longing to an already highly sensual classic.
The encoreless show wrapped with a barnburner associated with another Bowl veteran, Janis Joplin, as Hill reprised her 1993 No. 1 hit, "Piece of My Heart," which here prominently featured a horn section that had seemed a bit muted earlier in the proceedings. And with that, Hill's first show since the Obama inaugural balls was done. Her stage patter focused almost exclusively on the "iconic" Bowl itself, with no career or personal-life asides. Is she finally working on a follow-up to 2005's Fireflies? Or is domestic life really suiting her just fine? There was nary a hint either way, but for starved fans, it was enough just to get what pieces of her musical heart they could.