in performance: tim mcgraw and faith hill/caitlyn smith

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

“I don’t talk much,” said Faith Hill after the first round of last night’s cosmopolitan country summit at Rupp Arena with hitmaker husband Tim McGraw.

Ever the dutiful partner, McGraw offered a quick reply to the contrary that we can’t reprint here.

Ah, love among the country royals. It’s not what you think, and neither was the couple’s two hour Soul 2 Soul concert before a crowd of 9,500. If you expected this to be an evening of love dovey duets and complimentary crooning, you were likely disheartened. McGraw and Hill represented musical styles that are almost purposely incompatible. More than that, they played to those differences, whether their duets danced upon the brink of breakup (as in the angst heavy “Angry All the Time”), presented the singers with their backs to each other (the 2006 hit “Like We Never Loved At All”) or maintained a strict man-up demeanor (the 2017 hit “Speak to a Girl”).

More to the point, half of the program had the two artists performing separately. Collaborative sections opened and closed the evening but extended solo sets were placed in between. What we learned from the couple’s alone time was this:

Hill, at age 50, still possessed astonishing vocal power along with the will (and, perhaps, need) to show it off. That suited the anthemic stance of songs like “The Way You Love Me,” “Free” and “Stronger.” There was little, if anything, that could viewed as country in all of this, as witnessed by her take on “Piece of My Heart,” the soul manifesto that served as successive hits for Erma Franklin and Janis Joplin in the late ‘60s. Such vocal firepower also left little room for subtlety (the pure pop confection “This Kiss” was about as calm as things got). But for sheer performance and vocal stamina, the years have done nothing to diminish the artist Hill’s husband introduced only as “Mrs. McGraw” and “my wife.”

Mr. McGraw, 51, was far more easygoing onstage and fueled by a stronger, more defined country muse. He wasn’t half the singer Hill was, but the reedy tone of his voice equally suited the ultra-modern honky tonk gusto of “Real Good Man,” the breezier sway of “Shotgun Rider” and the worldly affirmations “Humble and Kind” and “Live Like You Were Dying.” McGraw’s performance was also loose enough to insert an impromptu acoustic cover of “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a 1988 hit by his “favorite Kentucky singer” Keith Whitley, into an otherwise regimented and choreographed set.

The show came with considerable high tech pomp, as well, that played out mostly through lights, lasers and video displays. So it was refreshing to see McGraw and Hill venture separately into the crowd – during “Mississippi Girl” for her and “Something Like That” for him – as closing time approaced. How nice, after all the pageantry, to find country royalty middling amid the minions.

The evening opened with a vastly less established country couple. Minnesota songwriter Caitlyn Smith offered an appealing half-hour, six-song set with husband Rollie Gaalswyk shunning the spotlight on rhythm guitar. Probably a wise move. Smith’s performance revealed commanding dynamics, from the slow and spacious “Before You Called Me Baby” to the giddier rumble of “Contact High.” Topping that was a potent vocal wail that sounded like a rootsier version of what Hill unleashed later in the show. An impressive outing.

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