Monday, June 10, 2013

Tim McGraw captivates with San Manuel spectacle

The country star unifies music lovers and party people via superb, trick-filled set.

Tim McGraw on June 8, 2013. Photo credit: Kelly A. Swift

Tim McGraw had already performed for about an hour Saturday night (June 8, 2013) before he focused on material from his latest album, Two Lanes of Freedom, at San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino County.
As with most veteran artists, his switch to new stuff wasn't initially met with the same cheers that accompany classic hits. Yet it was during this stretch that the Louisiana native displayed what has helped make him such a durable entertainer over the past 20 years.
From the spirited, dance-minded "Mexicoma" to the tender ballad "Nashville Without You," McGraw and his terrific, longtime seven-member band the Dancehall Doctors showcased an effortless ability to take audiences (like this party-geared one) through a vast range of emotional terrain.
When he got to his next song, "Friend of a Friend," a symphonic opening courtesy of the keyboards segued into a tender tale of cheating set against a backdrop of coffee shops and yoga sessions, rather than the honky-tonk days of old.
More than any other country star of his generation, McGraw, 46, has been able to stay relevant for more than two decades by blending classic and current styles in songs that connect with the heart.
His mini-set of new tunes, for instance, reached its zenith when he broke into "Highway Don't Care," his duet with Taylor Swift, who could be seen singing with him via large and effective rear-projection screens. Sealing the deal on that song was Keith Urban's lead guitar work, another video element blended seamlessly into the performance, although not everyone picked up on the trick: some inebriated fans near me stood on their chairs and screamed in delight shooting photos of on-screen Swift as if she was physically there.
Anyone who has been to big modern country shows outdoors (be it Stagecoach or Go Country's annual fest in Irvine) knows there are two types of audiences that attend these shindigs: those who come to dress the part, drink and party; and those who come primarily for the music. That dichotomy was well-served by McGraw, who began the show by walking from the back of the venue through the audience, delighting fans as they greeted him with high-fives and got snapshots on their smartphones as he went past.
Opening his lengthy set with the fiddle-anchored "Where the Green Grass Grows," the bash was instantly in full swing, people singing its melodic chorus and clapping along when prompted by the singer in the black cowboy hat.
The use of screens was more effective than is the norm, with canny images usually reinforcing themes and lyrics from specific songs. The rowdy "How Bad Do You Want It?" (treated to roadhouse imagery) and "Angel Boy" (its spacious rock soundscape positioned against stunning aerial shots of wilderness landscapes) made excellent use of this technique.
"Live Like You Were Dying," arguably his most beloved song, closed out his main set, unifying the sober and the impaired as McGraw applied his distinctive baritone to the bittersweet tale of a man striving to make the best of life's remaining moments. (The song was originally dedicated to his father, legendary relief pitcher Tug McGraw, who died in 2004 of a brain tumor.) The performance clearly defined why this country superstar continues to connect to diverse crowds so forcefully.
Of the two opening acts, Brantley Gilbert brought his hard-rock-infused blend with original cuts such as "My Kinda Party" and "Dirt Road Anthem" (both covered by Jason Aldean in recent years) while exhibiting tender instincts on the pretty ballad "More Than Miles." Although the upstart – who will marry another newcomer, Jana Kramer, later this year – has been compared to fellow Georgia tunesmith Zac Brown, Gilbert's raspy vocals and hard-edged approach lacked the nuance of Brown's live turns with his exceptional band.
Love and Theft open the night. Photo: Kelly A. Swift
Love and Theft, the pop/country duo of guitarists and vocalists Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson, kicked off the evening with an entertaining half-hour set. The highlights were "Runnin' Out of Air," their country-rock enhanced by a bit of funky guitar, and the closing number "Angel Eyes," an upbeat tune that got many in the crowd on their feet and singing along with the pair's shining harmonies.
My review was originally published on The Orange County Register Web site on Sunday morning, June 9, 2013. Photo: Kelly A. Swift, for the Register

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