Tim McGraw sure knows how to cure a seven-year wait.
On Saturday at Xcel Energy Center, he made his entrance WWE-style, climbing down the steps in the bowl end of the arena to a small stage opposite the big one where all 10,541 fans thought he would appear.
Standing in one spot, he sang the dramatic "Halo." "There's a spotlight on his butt," announced the woman behind me, suggesting the star knows how to accent his assets. "He's wearing a white T-shirt," said the faithful fan next to me. "So predictable."
The outfit -- black cowboy hat, tight white T and even tighter blue jeans -- might have been predictable but the show was not. McGraw, one of country's enduring superstars, hasn't presented a big-production solo show in the Twin Cities since 2004. He offered unforgettable in-the-round concerts with his equally famous wife, Faith Hill, in 2006 and '07. Then he did no-frills solo shows in 2008 to inaugurate the 3,000-seat events room at Treasure Island Casino and in 2010 at the State Fair.
On Saturday, McGraw used that satellite stage at least twice during his 115-minute set, and he spent most of the night on the cross-shaped runway extending from the main stage, which was festooned with flashing lights and giant big screens showing artsy graphics, video clips and live closeups (though not enough of them).
What this set up enabled McGraw to do was connect with his crowd. He touched more hands in two hours than presidential hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney probably could combined. No country superstar gets as close to his crowd except for Taylor Swift -- but she gets mobbed by her minions, and the seas parted for McGraw as he strolled through the audience.
While so many fans were thrilled to touch their hunky hero (he's a movie star now, too, thanks to playing opposite Sandra Bullock and Gwyneth Paltrow), he seemed less loose than at the State Fair. This presentation was more stagey and less party-like. Even though he seemed more energetic last year at the more compact grandstand stage, McGraw, 44, was still country strong Saturday, performing an array of his hits, dusting off one of his favorite slow-dance oldies (Lionel Richie's "Sail On") and previewing his overdue "Emotional Traffic" album (a breezy, jazzy stroll called "Right Back at U").
McGraw prudently played to his strengths, picking smart, emotional songs that don't challenge his limited vocal range, showing off his buff body and putting together an artful and entertaining production. He wisely brought out his opening acts to accompany him on separate selections -- the Band Perry on "Can't Be Really Gone" and Luke Bryan on "Back When." And he exited in style -- from the main stage while three members of his Dancehall Doctors band stood on the small stage jamming on a hit that aptly described the audience's reaction -- "I Like It, I Love It."