SAN DIEGO — The Soul 2 Soul Tour appears carefully engineered to avoid signs of competition.
Faith Hill, recently nominated for eight CMA awards, and husband Tim McGraw (three CMA nods, even without a new record) each performed one-hour sets here Saturday night, then reunited for a half-hour segment of duets.
A clear winner has emerged, though: the fans. Almost 12,000 of them jammed Cox Arena. A significant portion of the crowd had mostly a rear view of the stars, despite the circular stage; judging by the fans' reactions to the show and to the two showings of McGraw's good-humored beer commercials, one of which emphasizes a rear view of his anatomy, that wasn't a problem.
Singer/songwriter Phil Vassar also came out on top, even though he was at the bottom of the bill and lacked a band. Running through a medley of his work for others, notably the Jo Dee Messina hits "Bye Bye" and "I'm Alright," and his own "Just Another Day in Paradise" and "Joe & Rosalita," Vassar impressed with his narrative style.
Victory could also have been declared, if one wished, between the headliners, whose current albums have gone triple-platinum. Although Hill is the bigger name, as another of those beer spots pointed out, McGraw was by far the superior performer.
Trying To Find Her Wild Side
Hill seemed determined to prove that her presence at the most recent VH1 "Divas Live" event was no fluke. Moving briskly through a set of pop tunes with a hint of country-soul roots, she succeeded nicely. "This Kiss" (RealAudio excerpt) and the recent smash "Breathe" (RealAudio excerpt) deserve their crossover success through sheer craftsmanship, while other songs were too lightweight to survive the enthusiastic backing of her seven-man band — the drummer was so spirited, he had to be caged in Plexiglas — and three female backing vocalists. (Sonicnet.com's parent company, Viacom, also owns VH1.)
"Wild One," her early hit, remains too tame and "Piece of My Heart" too tough; even though she's strengthened it up over the years, it won't make anyone forget Janis Joplin.
Hill moved beyond the hit-or-miss glitz with the beguiling "It Matters to Me." "The very first time I ever sang was in a small church in Edinburg, Mississippi," Hill said, and her hushed, reverent "It Matters" conveyed that feeling, especially with the audience joining in.
Tellingly, Hill didn't tap into her most compelling — and most country-related — talent, a slightly hoarse vocal undercurrent with an emotional potential that strongly evokes the late Tammy Wynette, a fellow Mississippian. However, Hill would have to experience something approaching Wynette's epic struggles to unleash the quality, and that doesn't appear likely for this half of Nashville's model couple.
Mostly Hits, A Few Misses
Hill's better half, at least onstage, McGraw deftly balanced sincere, George Strait–based traditional country with the more rambunctious sounds of trendier acts, with a nod in the direction of Jimmy Buffett ("Refried Dreams"). Such ballads as "Everywhere" (RealAudio excerpt), on which he played acoustic guitar, and "Don't Take the Girl," an unabashed tearjerker, mixed easily with the raucousness of "I Like It, I Love It" and "Down on the Farm." And it wasn't much of a stretch for McGraw to cover the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker," the classic-rock staple that's twangy to begin with and was given a Southern-rock treatment here.
McGraw showed his vocal limitations on "Seventeen" (RealAudio excerpt), although it certainly wasn't the brightly nostalgic song itself that challenged him. Rather, he chose to introduce it with an audio clip of Frank Sinatra singing "It Was a Very Good Year" ("... when I was 17"), and the contrast between a master and a modest talent who gets by on hard work and determination couldn't have been more pronounced.
He was better matched with Hill. Their emotional connection and contrasting, hard and soft styles transformed "It's Your Love" and "Let's Make Love" (RealAudio excerpt) into what can accurately be called — in the terminology of the Country Music Association — "vocal events." ("Let's Make Love," with Hill in the lead, is nominated this year.)
The pair brought the same romantic spark to Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," which brought the evening to an energetic close. However, the most revealing of the duets was "Angry All the Time," with McGraw singing lead and playing acoustic guitar on the song by Bruce Robison. Some may prefer Robison singing it with his wife, the sublime Kelly Willis, but this was mighty fine, with Hill finally getting in touch with her inner Tammy.