Tim McGraw at Xcel Energy Center, 5/14/11

Tim McGraw May 14, 2011 Xcel Energy Center

Several stops into his Emotional Traffic Tour, country music superstar Tim McGraw paid a visit to the Twin Cities Saturday night with a performance at the Xcel Energy Center. A true professional after over 20 years of performing--hard to imagine given his youthful appearance--McGraw gave a near sell-out crowd of fans exactly what they were looking for: tight jeans, love ballads, and pop music with a fiddle. The country genre has become so muddied over the years, it's difficult to listen to McGraw and find any connecting thread whatsoever between him and, say, Jimmie Rodgers, or Roy Acuff. It ain't quite country, but it's all right.


But first up, the Band Perry and Luke Bryan opened the show at a clip; with doors at 6, and showtime at 7, the Band Perry was wrapped up before 7:30, with Luke Bryan taking the stage before 7:40.

Bryan's live show is much more polished than when I saw him on the county fair circuit two summers ago: self-assured, and with more content (and a very large stage banner). His good ol' country boy southern/blues/rock-infused take on the genre seems to resonate with those in touch with and unashamed of rural living.

"So I went fishin' on the St. Croix River today," Bryan revealed. "Caught a few smallmouth if you know what I'm sayin', and on my way down there I saw some good deer huntin' land.

"Who likes to hunt deer?" (Cheers)

"Who likes to drink beer?" (Bigger cheers)


Bryan then launched into the song "Drinkin' Beer and Wastin' Bullets," dedicating it to those who like to both hunt deer and drink beer at the same time. The vocals on his song, "If You Ain't Here to Party" sounded distractingly autotuned, though it was likely in the way the backup vocalist or prerecorded vocals were matching up with his live vocals.

All that said, Luke Bryan's schlocky, high-energy, good-times pop-country act always renews my weird fascination with and thus interest in nu-country. It's just so damned infectious.

When Tim McGraw took his turn on the stage around 9, it became clear there wouldn't be a bad seat in the house--the stage thrust out in a catwalk extending nearly the length of the Xcel Center floor, winding from the front stage to the back of the house. At times, McGraw even got off the stage (security never far away) and wandered the floor with fans.

Whereas Bryan's themes and presentation are a bit more populist, McGraw is clearly adored by the ladies, even if just slightly more than by the men. And for good reason: Everything about him oozes "romance," from his smooth and often sappy ballads to his soft voice to his reputation as a traditional family man to his very very tight jeans.

His Saturday night performance had all the hallmarks of a pop-country arena show: cheesy jumbo video projections, a greater reliance on keyboards and pre-recorded tracks than on one guy playing pedal steel and another guy playing mandolin, and songs teenage girls in Iowa and North Dakota and Oklahoma are having their first kisses to in the beds of the really expensive Dodge Ram pickups their very first boyfriends' daddies bought for them.

I get why country's always going pop, but part of me just wants 'em all to get old and washed up and go back to pedal steel and mandolins and playing the occasional country standard, as I imagine artists like Tim McGraw are destined to do someday, should they not instead make the transition to true adult contemporary lite rock (McGraw) or 93x dude rock (Bryan).

On the musical spectrum, McGraw's easily three inches away from Maroon 5 but three thousand feet from Johnny Cash with only rare exceptions ("Would You Like Fries with That," "Back When," and "Real Good Man" are just a few he played Saturday night.) Just one of the many reasons why so many people claim not to like country music, yet the genre's just as strong as ever. Why there's something wrong in the state of Tennessee, but Nashville's producers are likely rolling in more money than ever. Artistic supply and demand at its finest. Money talks, and the mandolin must walk.

Of course, I don't mean to speak ill of the artists, including McGraw, but more of the consumers. Case in point, when McGraw sat down to do a really touching (and unexpected) cover of the Commodores song "Sail On," introducing it as a song he would've listened to at a party in his youth, several people took this as their pee break/beer cup refill run, and the two drunk chickadees behind me began screeching louder than Tim McGraw. And I quote:

"I spilled my beer in my purse!" (Begins waving her shoe in the air.) "I spilled beer in my purse!" (Drops shoe.) "I can't find my other shoe! I'm gonna pee my pants. I can't find the hole."

What hole? We'll never know.

​Critic's bias: I prefer my country to sound more country. The crowd: People who can follow along with Luke Bryan's elementary science lesson: Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey, whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky.
Random notebook dump: On the topic of pre-recorded vocals: I'm sorry that people come expecting to hear a live show that sounds just like the CD they bought at the Walmarts, and so you have to do them. It seems everyone's relying on them heavily, and they sound terrible.

Set List:
Halo/BBQ Stain/Where the Green Grass Grows/When the Stars Go Blue/BBQ Stain/Where the Green Grass Grows/When the Stars Go Blue/Last Dollar (Fly Away)/You'll Find Better Love/Maybe We Should Just Sleep on it/For a Little While/Right Back Atcha/Red Ragtop/Unbroken/Sail On/Can't Be Really Gone/Do You Want Fries with That?/Back When/Better than I Used to Be/Southern Voice/Felt Good on my Lips/Real Good Man/The Ride

Live Like You Were Dying/Indian Outlaw/I Like It, I Love It