Having not been to a
concert in a couple of years, mostly because there just aren't many musical
acts out there that seem more than so-so to me nowadays (rare exceptions
like Imogen Heap and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club notwithstanding), I was
certainly surprised to find myself at the T.D. Waterhouse Centre in Orlando
for - gulp - a country music concert.
Two qualifications must be made. First, I certainly didn't pay for the show. My best friend, who is indeed a big country fan, won the 3rd-row tickets from a local radio station and, knowing that I like good music no matter the genre, invited me as an early birthday present. Second, it was only kind of country; while Tim McGraw is definitely country more often than not, Faith Hill is kinda country, kinda pop. More on that in a minute.
The first sign of misfire was the stage setup, an "in-the round" layout consisting of a large circular stage in the center of the arena with ramps coming out on all four sides into the crowd. The floor of the entire thing was used for projections and light shows, which looked amazing from up in the arena but couldn't be seen at all by anyone on the floor unless they watched the Diamondvision screens (which is kind of against the point of getting floor seats).
Beginning a classic half-hour late, the show began with the mock-drama of one of Tim and Faith's duets, which are becoming way too common. Doesn't matter what the song was, as they are all slight variations on each other. Faith rose from under the stage at one end of the appendage runway; from as far away as he could get on the end of the opposite runway, Tim did the same. As they sang their song of love, they never turned toward or acknowleged each other, which pretty much kills the point of the duet, eh? And the moment (which mercifully passed quickly) was accompanied by the night's only bad wardrobe choice, as Tim appeared in a leather jacket that was not quite his size, making him look, for the only time in this decade, a little overweight, which he is certainly not.
At the end of the song, Tim descended again while Faith launched into her set proper. Perhaps "launched" is too stong a term, though. For most of the set, she seemed on auto-pilot, hitting every note perfectly but doing nothing special with them. She looked technical and almost bored a lot of the time; one got the impression that she was just trying to make it through the set without any major problems. However, the biggest glitch of all was the stage setup itself; with way too much ground to cover, and way way way too much hand-shaking on the runways for the fans, Ms. Hill was overpowered by the floor she stood on, making both her and her music seem much smaller.
One thing that often trips up country artists that want to present themselves like rock stars is that while rock stars spend more time concentrating on the music, country stars seem to spend more time trying to personalize the show for the fans, which makes the music appear as nothing more than a vehicle for fan-fairing. The mystery of rock is a major part of its appeal, and while Faith can surely sing, there is more mystery in a coin toss than in her performance. And her onstage "moves" consisted mostly of her tilting her head back and raising her fist at the end of nearly every song. When she once opened her hand instead of leaving it clenched, it felt like the Resurrection. That's not a compliment.
The biggest surprises of Faith's set to me were small but still noteworthy. A stripped-down acoustic take on "Cry" packed much more emotional punch than its overdramatized studio counterpart. A short a capella gospel piece with her excellent backup singers center-stage was downright inspired and inspiring. And as she closed her set with her cover of Janis Joplin's "Piece Of My Heart", I was ready to cringe (the studio version always seemed blasphemously bland to me), but I was pleased that the live version had much more bite, and that Faith actually seemed to get into it for the first time all night. Maybe she didn't have to save her voice anymore, or was just glad her half was over, but she really relaxed and belted it out. While she will never come close to being a Janis Joplin, she at least showed that there was more to her than the mindnumbingly middle-of-the-road approach that is her trademark.
After Faith went down under the stage, she and Tim resurfaced in the center, finally almost touching but on chairs back-to-back for another duet without seeing each other. This time gauzy sheer curtains encircled the centerstage (try flash-photographing THAT with your smuggled-in Coolpix cameras, you yokels), but whoever designed the set made a major mistake by not having their circle of love rotate so that everyone could see them over the course of the song. I have never been left so cold by a so-called love song, and couldn't help but wonder if they even really liked each other.
After another descent underground, Tim rose again, and in relativity the real show began. With more showmanship in his right bicep than his wife has yet developed in her whole body, Tim oozed star quality and aw-shucks humility at the same time, which is another mistake in the rock world but perfect for country. This made up for misfires in his set, which mirrored his wife's a lot. Too much handshaking watered down some songs, but Tim recovered quicker, covering much more stage during each song and concentrating as hard on the music as he did on eye contact with each audience member. A crack backup band, more distinctive than Faith's, certainly helped.
While he certainly is a fine singer and could probably handle much more than country given the right material, the songs that tried to go more pop were the ones that fell flat during Tim's set. Trite lyrics and predictable arrangements killed a lot of the midtempo songs, and while sappy tear-jerkers like "Live Like You Were Dying" and the gotta-sing-one-about-Jesus-for-the-core-base "I've Got Friends That Do" may sound inspiring on country radio, in person they look and sound like forced pandering to the lowest common denominator. Anyone who remembers the name of a bull they rode for 2.7 seconds is... well...let's just say it's unnerving to see the audience sing a line of a tender tragedy of a song, followed by "Whoo!" as the guitar solo takes over. She's dying in childbirth! Yeah! It was a country Spinal Tap, starring the audience.
The expected highlight of McGraw's set was "I Like It, I Love It", which had the audience singing the choruses, with Tim giving the final line to audience members with his mic in their faces. It was energetic, it was bonding, it was fun. And Tim looked like he enjoyed it as much as the audience, which made it even better. An hour of this would have made me an actual ticket-buying, autograph-seeking fan, and he came close at other times during the set, but finally this raised the bar that wasn't ever quite touched again before or after. At least he had taken the jacket off for his set, showing his near-perfect workout physique for the adoring female fans and occasionally flashing his eyes from under the brim of the trademark black cowboy hat. Even when he didn't sound quite like a star, he certainly looked like one.
Perhaps Tim's set seemed better because there aren't as many examples of crossover gods to put him up against. Females that attempt crossover are inevitably held against the standard set by true stars from Ronstadt to Parton to Emmylou Harris, who is today's best example of someone whose very breath can be more transcendent than a whole concert's worth of wannabes. Steve Earle is the closest reference point to country-rock crossover, and he sure as hell wouldn't be caught in middle-of-the-road territory, ever. Maybe if Tim commits to actually rocking out sometime, it will have been worth the wait. Until then it's the harder-core country stompers that will be remembered as his best stuff.
After Tim's set, the duo were back together. The Next Big Love Song From Miles Away Onstage was thankfully predictable given the next faux pas. I never in a million years would have expected a rave-up of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry", and this time it was Tim that let me down. While Faith sang her verses as Faith Hill, making them at least slightly her own, Tim delivered his in what was surely thought as a tribute to Marley, but came off as a bad impersonation of him. What I thought was a bass rumble hear the end might have actually been Bob turning over in his grave. With both bands onstage and all the lights going wild I assumed this was the end. Thankfully, no.
Just when I'd given up, Tim and Faith rose again center stage, again sitting down. But, oh my God, this time they were facing each other, singing the beautiful "I Need You", accompanied by a solitary guitar, looking into each other's eyes and sounding like they meant it. Despite what seemed like an utterly predictable Disney-staged kiss at the end, this was the transcendence of music and emotion that stars and memories are made of. Let's hope that if we must have more T&F duets over the years that they can be this moving, more love than melodrama, more heart than hype. If this show was any indication, it might be a long hard road getting there, but when one spotlight hits two hearts just right, it's worth it.