DARIEN – Tim McGraw knows how to play Buffalo, and it hardly required music.
Standing onstage Thursday night at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, his muscular frame tightly wrapped in ripped blue jeans and sleeveless gray T-shirt beneath his obligatory black cowboy hat (and yes, the outfit is part of how he plays it), McGraw introduced himself simply. Smartly.
“I’m Jim Kelly,” McGraw said.
As the crowd erupted, McGraw pointed left to the Buffalo Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback, his longtime friend.
With Kelly identified, the cheers crescendoed and McGraw said, “I don’t have to do nothin’ else tonight. So we’ll just play the hell out of this next song.”
Which he did. Suffice it to say, McGraw and his eight-piece band played the heck out of their entire set, which ran just under two hours and included a range of hits from “Something Like That” to “I Like It, I Love It” to a cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”
Occasionally, like on “Real Good Man,” McGraw strapped on a guitar and played it at the center of his three-tiered, club-lighted stage. But mostly, it was the man, the mic, the muscles, and the really massive golden belt buckle.
And that works, completely and totally. McGraw has a smooth voice, machismo and sex appeal.
He’s done this, as he pointed out, for 25 years. He remains predictably excellent at it.
So the real story isn’t in the world-class musicality or sharp showmanship. It’s the little things – and some big ones – that McGraw does to transform a show into an experience.
That starts with the openers; McGraw and team choose them well. The main lead-in man was Billy Currington, an ideal opener for someone like McGraw, whose fan base spans fans from their late teens through 50s and older. At 41, he’s been around long enough to be familiar to fans – whether by name or ear, when they hear some of his longer-known hits like “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” – to fill an hour lead-in set with strong material. And the man works hard.
When Currington took the stage after the first opener Chase Bryant, a rising country prospect in his early 20s whose romantic “Change Your Name” is a grabber, his gray t-shirt was soaked under the arms.
One hour later, the shirt was virtually black, a sponge for Currington’s sweat.
The energy expended went to good use. Currington lured the crowd with a pair of bouncy tunes, “That’s How Country Boys Roll” and “Love Done Gone,” and reeled them in with a duo of chugging songs, “Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer” and the new release “Drinkin’ Town with a Football Problem.” (Currington hasn’t played the latter on every Shotgun Rider Tour Stop; given the football flavor of the evening, he was a smart man to do it here.)
In the second half of his set, Currington whipped the crowd into a partying whirl with the bass-heavy “Hey Girl,” a call-and-response rendition of “We Are Tonight” and not-so-country styled cover of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”
On this Shotgun Rider Tour, Currington was the right guy to ride shotgun for McGraw: Both men are musicians first, showmen second, but know it’s the little details – and a lot of sweat – that make the show work.
There was the little blond girl in front of the stage whom both McGraw and Currington knelt to acknowledge.
There were the military members to whom McGraw dedicated “Just to See You Smile.”
And there was a smart business move, inviting staffers from country station WYRK (and their Rochester counterparts at WBEE) to an onstage bar for “Where the Green Grass Grows” and the new “Shotgun Radio,” which pays homage to country radio.
But the biggest moment came during “I Like It, I Love It.”
The country star brought the football star onstage with Kelly’s daughter, Erin. Jim, a survivor of cancer and so many more battles, threw a couple of footballs into the crowd. As McGraw and Erin Kelly stepped aside, the former quarterback stood alone onstage, soaking up the crowd’s cheers, lifting his cowboy hat in thanks and seeming to wipe tears from his face.
McGraw handed the microphone to Kelly, who said, “Buffalo, you are the best.”
The crowd roared some more.
Turns out McGraw was right. He didn’t have to do a thing – but by bringing Kelly onstage, he did everything.