Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.
"I didn't give up," he clarified afterward. "I've just been married for 21 years. How many of y'all are married? So you know what I'm talking about: She's the boss."
Hill smiled and rolled her eyes the way spouses often do.
"That's okay," she assured him. "It takes two."
That it does on Hill and McGraw's 2017 Soul2Soul Tour, which played to 13,500 lovestruck fans at Tampa's Amalie Arena Friday night. The Nashville power couple's third-ever tour together, and first in a decade, arrived a month before they drop The Rest of Our Life, their first duets album in 21 years of marriage.
Both Hill and McGraw turned 50 on their tour, but you would never know it from their sculpted-from-stone physiques -- McGraw's taut and sturdy, veins popping from his biceps; Hill's airy and athletic, and always in motion. Between them and their 10-piece band, the Hill-McGraws owned the arena-sized stage, with elaborate, futuristic lights and lasers transforming what could’ve been a by-the-book hit parade into a spectacle befitting their A-list reputations.
So much of that has to do with Hill, still as killer a queen as country music has produced in the past 30 years. She’s also gone a decade without headlining in Tampa, which made her vibrant performance – graceful as ever, but more Grace Potter than Grace Kelly – feel all the more missed.
Impressively peppy at all times, Hill commanded the spotlight every second she was on the stage, showing not a flake of rust from her years of lighter touring in her solo set. She skipped and swayed and twisted through each song, her gigantic voice sailing upward with ease on the breezy This Kiss, delicate Breathe and electric Wild One. Piece of My Heart, that all-time blues barn-burner, hewed much closer in style and fire to the Janis Joplin classic than her own fluffy ’90s version. You want star power? Shoot, on the full-hearted The Lucky One, she practically channeled Bruce Springsteen.
True, she missed a line or two while parading through the crowd on Mississippi Girl, but made up for it by high-fiving every fan within arm’s reach. And she bowed little to conservative country conventions, interpolating Beyonce’s Freedom into her own Free, and proffering a message of inclusivity on Stronger: "This is for my sisters and brothers who are fighting to be who you are! I want to encourage you to be yourself!"
McGraw, meanwhile, is an annual visitor in these parts, and his set was much more measured. While he got the crowd rowdy with I Like It, I Love It and Real Good Man, his real calling card in 2017 is his maturation into Nashville’s courtly king of the heartfelt homily. He conducted the a cappella audience on Humble and Kind and opened his arms wide to embrace their voices again on the uplifting Live Like You Were Dying. (Though it seemed each song, no matter how mellow and gentle, still required him to flex and contort his torso into some sort of statuesque pose. You didn’t hear many women complaining.)
But what truly lit the spark on their combustible star power was seeing the couple on stage together for two collaborative sets – eight songs at the outset, five more at the end – that saw them working the audience’s expectations like studied pros.
The Rest of Our Life only got a brief, two-song preview. For the steamy Speak to a Girl, Hill sang first, then McGraw, letting their voices ripple across one another. Telluride – a song that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2001 McGraw song – was a riled-up Southern rock jam, with a whiskey-sipping ramble to the end that would make the Allmans proud.
But they sang to one another often, from across the stage and within arm’s reach. They watched the IMAX-sized screen behind them as it filled with photos of their marriage and family during It’s Your Love. And for the final, most intimate song of the night, I Need You, they rose from the stage in a pair of silver chairs, his knees between hers, his hands on her thighs, singing into one mic right between them. Then, at the end, a final taste of PDA: A kiss, just one, with Hill dabbing McGraw’s lips at the end.
After 21 years of marriage, Hill and McGraw can probably finish each other’s sentences, to say nothing of their songs and shows. They haven’t quit this thing yet. And as they walked off the stage side by side, there were thousands still rooting them on.
-- Jay Cridlin