Despite that buff body, muscular guitars and songs about trucks, cowboys and getting stoned, Tim McGraw is kind of a wuss.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s partly why he’s an enduring country superstar.
Surrounded by women growing up (sisters, mom and grandma) and in his current household (three daughters and wife Faith Hill), he understands what women want and knows what songs will connect with them. Whether he’s singing about love found or lost, his tunes are filled with quiet sincerity, traditional values and feel-good-about-yourself vibes — but never anything too macho beyond the guitars.
The 13,047 fans at the sold-out State Fair grandstand on Monday loved McGraw’s 95-minute performance — even if he was kind of a wuss, especially compared with raucous opening act Brantley Gilbert (more on him later). Truth be told, McGraw, 46, wasn’t as high-octane as he had been last summer at Target Field when he stole the show from headliner Kenny Chesney — or as animated, hand-slapping friendly and freewheeling as he was at his last fair concert in 2010.
This was a no-frills show, with McGraw leaving his fancy video screens, dramatic staging and other arena gimmicks in Nashville. That’s OK; he did the same in 2010 when he was more satisfying. This time around, he seemed to be on autopilot for too long, delivering nearly every song — whether happy or sad — with the same intensity, thus stripping them of any possible nuance. How can you sing “How Bad Do You Want It” without investing any urgency in it?
McGraw finally mustered more enthusiasm when he arrived at the set’s midsection featuring four consecutive selections from his new album, “Two Lanes of Freedom.” Even though he was virtually talk-singing, he was a little more assertive on “Mexicoma,” with its Beach Boys-evoking bounce and bop-bop harmonies.
He added extra oomph on the recent hit “Highway Don’t Care” if only because he was having to keep up with the taped vocals of Taylor Swift from the hit radio version; he even got fired up on the last couple of exchanges with Swift. McGraw then got downright forceful on “Two Lanes of Freedom,” an empowering rocker that sounds like Bono and Bruce Springsteen trying to write a country anthem. The heretofore statue-like McGraw was pogoing by song’s end.
Still, it’s hard to do much with McGraw’s voice, which is as plain as his black cowboy hat. “Real Good Man,” one of his most strutting hits, had swagger in the music but not in his vocal delivery. Yes, too often, he had to count on his eight backup musicians, the Dance Hall Doctors, to spark the crowd, as they did on the invigorating “Something Like That” and the Big & Rich-evoking finale, “Truck Yeah.”
McGraw did throw himself into the always majestic “Live Like You Were Dying” with emphatic body language and the breezy, Chesney-like “Felt Good on My Lips” with a run through the pit so he could shake hands with fans while Pitbull rapped on tape.
Opening act Gilbert, 28, knows a thing about rapping and rocking. With a voice that was three parts carnival barker, two parts sandpaper and one part sore throat, he sang about raising hell and kicking butt into a microphone that had a grip like brass knuckles. This bad-boy bravado might have been part genuine and part shtick, but the canny juxtaposition of these two acts just made un-macho McGraw more embraceable.
set list: www.startribune.com/artcetera