- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2000

First, a confession: The Faith Hill-Tim McGraw concert at MCI Center on Friday night was my first taste of what turn-of-the-century country music looks and sounds like in performance.

My 16-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, had informed me a fairly unreconstructed 1970s pop-rocker that the husband-and-wife superstars are the hot country singers of the year.

From the music I had heard, there was ample evidence why: Miss Hill, 32, and Mr. McGraw, 33, each excel at delivering succinct, often poignant, story-songs in which a shrewd pop sensibility is grafted to familiar country-rock stylings. My daughter is drawn to Cover Girl-clean Miss Hill's sweet-voiced but independent-minded songs of love and heartbreak; to her, the hunky Mr. McGraw shines not on the good-time rollicking numbers but the emotional, aching ballads.

The Louisiana-born Mr. McGraw has more traditional twang in his evocative voice than does his Mississippi queen, but she sure can light up a torch song. What surprised these eyes and ears Friday night was how much the pair's "Soul2Soul" show resembled a classic arena rock concert.

Miss Hill and band played first, then Mr. McGraw and band. The couple and their crack combos then combined for six duets, including sensually charged versions of the hits "Let's Make Love" and "It's Your Love."

The set lists were dominated by power ballads (her "Breathe," his "Seventeen"), fist-pumping anthems (her "The Secret of Life," his "Refried Dreams") and full-tilt, throwback rockers (her punchy cover of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," his percolating cover of Steve Miller's "The Joker"). Add to the mix stinging guitar solos and expert ensemble work accompanied by an in-your-face extravaganza of video and light.

This music was loud and proud. But for the punctuation of fiddle and pedal steel guitar during Mr. McGraw's set, at times you would swear Lynyrd Skynyrd or some other Southern-rock outfit was in the house.

Miss Hill, wearing a black blouse over fringed white pants, exploded onto the stage with a pounding "This Kiss" as sparkling confetti and streamers rained from the rafters.

She segued into the sentimental "The Way You Love Me," the first of five selections from her huge new CD, "Breathe," and the first of several hip-swaying rockers, "Wild One," before pausing to charm the packed hall with small talk.

"We only have one rule here tonight," she instructed the crowd before continuing her 13-song set. "Who cares what the person next to you thinks?"

Needless to say, the fans went nuts; many stayed on their feet throughout the 2 1/2-hour double-header.

Miss Hill belted out an impassioned "Let Me Let Go" while bathed in orange light, then simmered along with a lone piano on "It Matters to Me," a bluesy number about the distance between men and women for which the audience was only too happy to sing along.

Mr. McGraw racheted up the crowd's adrenaline level with a runaway set of 12 songs in which, unfortunately, he rarely slowed down to exploit his way with a soft and lonely ache.

Clad in black jeans, cowboy hat and a sleeveless T-shirt that revealed the word "Faith" in script tattooed on his right arm, Mr. McGraw concentrated on rocking crowd-pleasers like "Down on the Farm" and "Something Like That." He sounded positively haunted, however, on "Everywhere," "Don't Take the Girl" and "Just to See You Smile," this last one sending the ladies into screaming fits as he tipped his hat at them.

Such stage presence made for a potent combination when Miss Hill returned and the two closed out with a series of dramatic set pieces, including an unexpected cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way."

"I'm a little nervous, but don't tell," Miss Hill had mock-confided earlier, after welcoming family and friends from her home state who were in the audience.

To the contrary, country's celebrated happy couple never seemed to be anything but in charge.

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