TAMPA — Summer felt like it arrived a month early at Tampa’s Ford Amphitheatre on Friday for Tim McGraw’s “Southern Voice” tour stop. The temperature was as hot as the capacity-crowd show.
After a couple of swift sets from openers Love & Theft and the multiple-award winning Lady Antebellum, the Genesis song “In The Air Tonight” played through the house speakers, setting the mood of anticipation. McGraw and his band opened with “Real Good Man” behind a backlit curtain. After a few bars of the song, the curtain rose and McGraw wasted no time connecting with his fans, walking down the center stage catwalk to dole out high-fives and knuckle-bumps.
The happy, predominantly young crowd perked up and remained on its feet for the country song prototypes “Down On The Farm” and “Everybody Hates Me.”
While grabbing his acoustic guitar for a few mid-set tunes out on the catwalk, McGraw took advantage of a perfectly timed quiet moment to thank the crowd.
“For 23 years, I’ve been making a living doing music. We thank you for our jobs. I know you work your (bleeps) off. We appreciate you spending some money coming to see us!”
McGraw’s band was huge in size and sound. Many of the musicians have been with him since the early years, and he indirectly acknowledged them by always referring to “us” and not “me.”
McGraw led off the acoustic batch with the first song he ever learned on guitar, Alabama’s “Feels So Right.” For “Blank Sheet of Paper” there was no guest appearance by his wife, Faith Hill, for backing vocals as on the album version, but “Faith” appeared prominently in the form of a tattoo on McGraw’s right shoulder.
After the emotional “If You’re Reading This,” a song written for soldiers, the band came back strong for the Elton John classic “Tiny Dancer” and the crowd was up on its feet again. One fan scurried through front row to hand McGraw a rubber bracelet ,which he promptly put on.
He chatted again but this time with much more vigor. As if the stage under his boots were a massive country music pulpit, he yelled “Can you feel the spirit of country music?” The crowd roared. I confess I’m not a big country music fan and I don’t see a big belt buckle in my future but, man, I felt it. Immediately after the soothing “Things Change,” he looked back at his band and implored “Don’t stop now!” before taunting the crowd “Show us what you got!” The place went wild as they launched into “Like It, Love It.” Ah yes, the spirit of country music.
After the snappy, fun-loving “Something Like That” he delivered a few straight-for-the-gut songs, including “Sing Me Home” and, of course, his signature song “Live Like You Were Dying,” which garnered the biggest sing-along of the evening.
McGraw wrapped up the show with “The Cowboy In Me.” Toward the end of the song, while standing out on the catwalk, he turned and hurled his Telecaster electric guitar a good 25 feet back to the stage where a roadie caught it. He slapped some more hands, even signed an autograph and quietly walked off stage as the band played on.
People began to pour out of the aisles as if someone accidentally yanked out a central drain plug. They knew something I didn’t: After almost two hours, there would be no encore.
When the music stopped and the lights came on, I turned to a man nearby who was wearing a matching cowboy hat and grin and said, “No encore?” trying to elicit his opinion. He simply said, “Didn’t need one.”
It was the first Tim McGraw show for Magan and Christopher Watson, a young married couple from Fort Myers. “He was great... played all the songs we wanted to hear,” said Magan. Christopher added emphatically, “We came to have a good time and we did!” Everyone served at this nearly four-hour country feast for the senses would have agreed.
Chris Bradshaw is a Bonita Springs-based concert photographer who loves to shoot the show. He’s covered local bands in tiny smoke-filled bars, U2 in a sold-out stadium and everything in between.