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Tim McGraw connects

San Manuel Amphitheatre, Devore, Cal., June 5, 2010

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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It was a telling moment about midway through his performance when Tim McGraw told the story of when he pawned his class ring in order to purchase a guitar. As he explained it during a brief unplugged segment, his whole purpose for learning to play the guitar was to get laid. And it's hard to contest the success of that hook-up strategy, especially with someone who is married to the beautiful Faith Hill.

While McGraw can strum 'n sing just fine, he's by no means any master string bender, which leaves him a little handicapped when compared with hot axe men (and top country male performers), like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. Strangely, McGraw appeared a little naked up there on stage, mostly just standing and singing without a six-string.

Of course, when the songs were great, which was a lot of the time, props - or lack thereof - didn't matter at all. McGraw had the audience singing and swaying right along with him during radio hits like Something Like That and I Like It, I Love It. And when he got to Live Like You Were Dying, his performance was filled with the sort of communal good stuff great concert experiences are made of. Its lyrics, all about making the best of life no matter how much or how little time we're given, is something everybody can relate to.

McGraw lost a little momentum, however, when he performed less widely known material, such as his new single Still. He's not a bad singer; he just doesn't have the sort of voice that is an absolute joy to behold for its vocal qualities alone. This shortcoming was particularly apparent during McGraw's cover of Elton John's Tiny Dancer. It was hard not to notice how McGraw's singing pales in comparison to John's original performance.

Not all of McGraw's quieter moments were ineffective, however. A stretch where McGraw was flanked by a Warren brother on each side for the acoustic section of his show allowed the country star to chill for a few minutes with his audience. He spoke of how much he loved the brothers' song, Blank Sheet of Paper, and he wasn't just blowing smoke with these words of praise. It's a fine song, which stands up well - even with just acoustic guitars and vocals.

Those aforementioned instrumental/vocal guys, Paisley and Urban, have a clear advantage over McGraw because of their guitar skills. Even when the melodic and lyrical content quality drops off a little bit, lively licks cover multitudes of lapses. Therefore, now that he's set for life, romantically speaking, perhaps McGraw can start treating his guitar as something more than just an aural aphrodisiac.

McGraw's appearance was preceded by Lady Antebellum, an act that is topping both the pop and country charts right now. It's rare to see an audience get so excited about an opening act. But when the trio got to their big hit, Need You Now, it was a major camera phone moment. Yet as catchy as that song is, this vocal group somehow came off palpably indistinct.

These singers could learn a thing or two from McGraw's song (and album title) Southern Voice. The icons McGraw salutes with that song's lyric all had (and have) uniquely Southern perspectives on life, no matter their chosen style of music. Yet Lady Antebellum's performance brought back uncomfortable memories of the soft rock era in the'70s, back when one Firefall was worth two Pablo Cruises in a bush. After a while, all these faceless groups, with their perfectly feathered hair, began to sound like so many interchangeable parts. The group's cover of John Mellencamp's R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A. further drove the point home that Lady Antebellum was also not born to rock. The evening commenced with a performance by another trio, Love and Theft.