By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
In case you don’t know, Tim McGraw is a pleaser.
To drive this point home, he waited until late into his special club show at Joe’s Bar to sign whatever got shoved his way — baseball hats, CDs, flesh — while singing “Real Good Man” without skipping a beat. Singing and signing is interchangeable for a country music star whose style is of a campaigner who knows he has no other fate but to win.
That McGraw chose to spend the evening of the release of his 10th album “Southern Voice” (Curb) in Chicago was met with approval by a real politico: Gov. Pat Quinn, who opened the show holding a plaque naming Tuesday in the singer’s honor. Quinn added he hoped to hear McGraw sing the Tracy Lawrence hit, “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” which sounds like good advice for anyone sitting in the Illinois governor’s mansion.
Once McGraw hopped onstage, Quinn, in rolled-up shirtsleeves and unbuttoned collar, was ushered off. But not before a local radio personality compared both men this way: “The governor’s ass looks as good as Tim’s!”
Noted for the record. With that awkward moment past, the crowd got what many stood in line almost a day for: an intimate 95-minute concert by one of modern country’s biggest arena stars.
McGraw did not work the crowd as much as they saw how he worked. Which is: very casually. The singer, 42, broke a sweat only late into the show — and even then it wasn’t necessary. The show, a fundraiser for his charity (the Neighbor’s Keeper Fund), was attended by primarily female fans who tempered his willingness to be gawked at with the volume of their screams.
The majority of the 20-song set was dedicated to the new album, stocked with songs that sound very different from his pop-friendly familiar hits. Instead, on songs like “If I Died Today,” “Good Girls” and “Forever Seventeen,” the narrators sound as downbeat and uncertain as any who populate Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” While the arena anthems came off as cakewalks, the new songs sounded like an actual challenge, which was a good thing. Their melancholic storylines and somber moods forced McGraw to become a more deliberate and soulful singer who couldn’t just rely on easy hooks.
McGraw pressed the crowd to show patience for the hits; when they arrived, they became celebrations: “Something Like That” and “Where the Green Grass Grows” were group singalongs, reprised by the crowd long after the band played their last note. Interspersed with these, many of the new songs were not such obvious fits except one: the title song, which describes Southern identity through a litany of unlikely characters, from Billy Graham to Chuck Berry.
An eight-member band of road-tested musicians flecked some songs with country touches, from fiddle to pedal steel guitar, including a dual guitar interlude reminiscent of The Eagles’ “Hotel California” on “If I Died Today.”
The band came to life on the road tested pop hits. McGraw often stepped back and took a good look at each player’s contribution, giving the crowd the sense they were sitting in on a private rehearsal. That meant a continued reliance on lyric sheets and, on “She’s My Kind of Rain,” memory gaps while singing. McGraw is not scheduled to tour for this album until late next year, so there’s still time.