Despite the fact that Tim McGraw is five years sober, fit as a triathlete and touring behind a No. 1 album, he is still in an unenviable position. As he approaches 50, Mr. McGraw has to stay a step ahead of the current crop of young country hunks with TV shows, cross format radio airplay and wider appeal. But as he proved Saturday night at First Niagara Pavilion's 2013 opener, the seasoned veteran still has plenty of fight left.
The 20-song, two hour set was fueled by slick production, Mr. McGraw's boundless energy and one of the best touring bands in country music.
He entered by walking through the crowd to the delight of the packed venue. Once on stage, he opened with four scorching numbers, including "Down on the Farm" and "How Bad Do You Want It."
He joked, "We were in Philly last night and they were loud, but y'all got 'em whooped."
Material from the new album "Two Lanes of Freedom" peppered a greatest hits-type set list. "Southern Girl" was showcased first. It was seductively melodic while featuring a funky autotuned chorus.
Multiple video screens were used to great effect throughout, displaying images from hellfire and blood to a sky filled with stars.
Lead guitarist Darran Smith shredded a Stratocaster throughout and turned the title track into a blistering all-out jam. Mr. McGraw displayed some finesse by morphing the tepid, party cliched "Mexicoma" into a rousing rocker.
The megahit "Highway Don't Care" featured a stunning virtual performance with an angelic Taylor Swift singing and the underrated Keith Urban on guitar.
Mr. McGraw only provided cues on the moving closer "Live Like You Were Dying" as the crowd belted out the entire song.
Judging by the fan response and Mr. McGraw's electrifying stage presence, the likes of Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean not only have a lot to learn about putting on a live show but also much to overcome.
Brantley Gilbert proved to be more than a capable opener, with a set that sounded more like a rock concert in the vein of Eric Church. His best numbers were the original "Country Must be Country Wide" and "Hell on Wheels." His strong voice sounds like James Hetfield of Metallica. The hard driving songs would fit in just fine in the heavy metal genre.
Michael Rampa is a freelance writer.