Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are the reigning First Couple of Country Music, but the job description has changed since Johnny and June and George and Tammy held the title. Gone is true grit, the willingness to set real life's messy trials and unsavory tribulations to verse and chorus -- replaced with buffed, congenial catalog s.
Oh but Tim and Faith do buffed and congenial proud. She sparkled, first in a black halter pants suit and then in a short gold dress. He strutted, in painted-on jeans and a silk shirt. The production was beautiful -- elaborate but unpretentious -- featuring a massive cross-shaped stage in the center of the arena that created four catwalks into the crowd, and allowed for maximum laying on of hands.
The requisite video scrapbook -- usually an ego-stoked montage of career highlights and screaming fans -- was a lo-fi bio told with dolls and plastic farm animals. When the pair sang duets in their mismatched voices -- his is a whiskey drawl, she's a no-nonsense belter -- they generated real heat, and it was far more electric than the music.
It carried them through the opening number, a shrill cover of Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars." Hill's set followed, and whatever criticism can be leveled at a so-called country artist whose repertoire is stuffed with catchy pop-rockers, the woman is a fine singer and a relaxed, engaged performer. She sang the big radio hits -- "This Kiss," "The Way You Love Me," "Breathe" -- with a remarkable balance of glitz and warmth. She held her head high during the filler ("Sunshine and Summertime" is featherweight even by Hill's lenient standards) and kept the melodrama built into "Cry" and "Lost" at arm's length.
Hill's good sense failed her twice. She gave "Stronger," a country weeper, a chest-thumping delivery to rival Celine Dion. And her cover of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All" was kitsch-free and frightening. By contrast, Hill rocked -- really rocked -- the Joplin classic "Piece of My Heart."
After a pair of stern duets -- "Angry All the Time" and "Like We Never Loved at All" -- McGraw kicked off his solo set with Steve Miller's "The Joker." It wasn't a great choice. McGraw's voice was especially small and thin last night, incapable of highs or lows on such songs as "Something Like That," and "Live Like You Were Dyin'." He wisely enlisted visual as well as musical support from his band, which fanned out to the far reaches of the catwalks to distract the audience from McGraw's wan performance.
Stoughton native Lori McKenna -- whose songs Hill has recorded and whose McGraw-produced, major-label debut will be out in August -- opened the show with a set of her signature, earthy folk-pop that suggests her transition from local hero to national player will be seamless.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org