Touching fans' souls

Published June 3, 2006

She's got the big pipes and he's got the big personality, and when Faith Hill and Tim McGraw take the stage, the combined wattage of their star power is pretty close to blinding.

The reigning royal couple of country music held court at the St. Pete Times Forum on Friday night for a sellout crowd of 22,068 fans.

Their throne for the night was a center stage so elaborate it took a big crew two days to put it together. The floor lit up around them with vibrant flowers, butterflies and flashing colors and a huge overhead rigging transformed hanging stage lights into chandeliers interspersed with translucent draperies.

Although billed as "Soul2Soul Tour II," a reprise of their 2000 tour, most of the night was devoted to solo performances. Hill got the first shot, giving her snazzy sneakers a workout as she danced across the stage's four wings extending nearly the full length and width of the arena floor.

The arrangement gave thousands of fans a chance for hand slaps and close-up photos. Apparently a sucker for birthday posters, Hill gave one male fan a birthday kiss and untied the sparkly scarf decorating her microphone as a gift for a young woman celebrating her 18th.

Hill offered the night's better vocals, ranging from her cheerful pop-country hits like This Kiss and The Way You Love Me to the more dramatic Breathe. The high point of her performance was a moving rendition of the spiritual It is Well with My Soul, sung with a backup trio and minimal instrumentation.

But it was McGraw who had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the moment his cowboy hat could be seen peeking from beneath the stage. He ran through his big hits, including Real Good Man, Don't Take the Girl, Something Like That and Live While You Were Dying.

Some acoustical difficulties with his performance didn't seem to bother the crowd, who roared their approval of old songs (The Cowboy in Me) and new ones (The Stars Go Blue). McGraw sang a tender My Little Girl, the first of his own songwriting efforts he has ever recorded, written for his latest movie effort, My Friend Flicka.

McGraw and Hill fell in love when she was the opening act on his aptly-named Spontaneous Combustion Tour, but 10 years later, a comfortable togetherness has replaced the passionate sparks. These days they act like the long-married couple that they are, parents of three daughters (Gracie, Maggie and Audrey), and well able to keep their hands to themselves.

In fact, they sang their duets facing in opposite directions. That was a natural pose for opening number Like We Never Loved At All, a break-up lament, and Angry All the Time, but shouldn't people singing Let's Make Love at least hold hands? The encore included a delightful version of Shotgun Rider.

Now on the cusp of 40 (he just turned 39 and she will soon), McGraw and Hill have matured as people and performers, but they haven't lost an ounce of their good looks or sex appeal.