A celebrity power-couple mega-country arena show has potentially maudlin train-wreck written all over it, but spouses Faith Hill and Tim McGraw brought a show to KeyBank Center on Thursday that rather gracefully balanced bombast against understatement.
Dubbed the "Soul 2 Soul Tour," the show offered equal parts high-tech arena spectacle, heavy pop-rock and down-home country vibes – and offered both Hill and McGraw opportunity to shine on their own.
Ah, but let's face it, the prospect of seeing this real-life romance up close and personal is what put so many butts in so many seats, and so the emotional highs were largely delivered by the Hill/McGraw duet portion of the show.
All of this could've devolved into the overblown cheese that has clogged the arteries of pop- and bro-country for more than a decade now. Happily, Hill and McGraw are a classy couple, and their opening shared take on Aretha Franklin's "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" was more soulful than soap opera-ish.
Either these two have found a way to make their marriage work while retaining its initial spark, or they are good actors. The crowd – clearly choosing to believe the former – ate this up, as well it should have. It was just corny enough to be touching, and it didn’t beat us over the head with the whole We're-a-rich-country-music-couple-that-loves-each-other thing.
Hill, who tours far less than her husband, proved herself to be in fine voice during her well-received solo spotlight, which found her backed by the eight-piece band and backing vocalists she shared with her husband. Hers is a folk- and pop-tinged take on country, with ballads providing plenty of room for the display of a strong range and a remarkably clear and strong tone.
But Hill also rocks, in a country-meets-late-'80s-Def Leppard sort of way, and so "This Kiss" and a rousing "Piece of my Heart" had the crowd doing its best to reciprocate the energy coming from the stage.
McGraw's solo set offered affable contrast to his set with his wife - as if, romantic duties satisfied, it was time to drink beer and play poker with the boys.
Tunes like "One of Those Nights" and "Real Good Man" were rowdy and fun, but didn't really distinguish themselves from the Bro-country masses. No one seemed to mind. McGraw is lovable and a premier showman, and that was enough.
Margo Price opened, and made me wish I was watching her in an intimate honky-tonk with a cold beer in hand. Price has raised a bit of a ruckus with her willingness to speak a mind that doesn't toe the country music line.
"If we want to keep politicians and celebrities separate, then we shouldn’t elect a reality TV star as the president," Price told The Daily Show's Trevor Noah earlier this week, making two things immediately clear: This is not your average young country singer – and things have changed since the Dixie Chicks were run out of town for criticizing another Republican president, George W. Bush, a decade-plus back.
If Hill and McGraw represent traditional country music values without being particularly explicit about it, Price represents what some might see as a badly needed shift in country's aesthetics – a fiery fearlessness that suggests patriotism involves more than flag-waving and pickup trucks.
Her rapidly rising "All American Made" album is, along with Jason Isbell's recent work, emblematic of a country paradigm shift, one where folk, blues, southern rock and a more liberal worldview commingle.
Price's "Pay Gap" offers a perfect example of this, but sadly, the tune didn't make it into her too-short set Thursday. Its examination of the pay discrepancies between minorities and white males would've been interesting to hear in this environment.
Instead, a take on Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" married the influence of Emmylou Harris and Janis Joplin, and was just plain smokin'. I expect Price will be headlining her own shows soon.
Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
Thursday night in KeyBank Center