Country is king when it comes to concerts at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, making keeper of the modern country throne Tim McGraw the appropriate kickoff to its 2013 summer concert season Sunday night.
McGraw was welcomed warmly by some 20,000 fans in spite of a chilly night as he rolled in on his “Two Lanes of Freedom” tour, named after the 12th studio album for the Louisiana native who has ascended to Nashville royalty while crossing over into mainstream celebrity.
McGraw and his elastic eight-piece band offered the perfect opener for Darien Lake’s rural theme park setting, singing, “I’m gonna live where the green grass grows/watchin’ my corn pop up in rows” from “Where the Green Grass Grows,” one of his early No. 1 hits. He flashed his flair for fronting twang-toned riff rock in the carpe diem call of “How Bad Do You Want It,” and he followed with “Everywhere,” the ballad that spent 42 weeks on the Billboard charts in 1997-98. All the while, McGraw employed the textbook strength of his low tenor to emote with every note.
McGraw introduced his band, including an apparent Buffalo native on drums whose name was drowned by the crowd’s rabid response. He then introduced an honored guest up from Virginia Beach in retired U.S. Marine Cpl. Adlee Mederrick, who will receive a mortgage-free home with proceeds from the show’s ticket sales thanks to the fans, McGraw, Chase Bank and Operation Homefront, a program carried out at each stop of this tour.
The hit parade continued with the feel-good shuffle “Just to See You Smile” and ballad “My Kind of Rain,” followed by new pop song with a wink from the Warren Brothers in “Mexicoma.” High-profile collaborators Taylor Swift and Keith Urban (“Highway Don’t Care”) and Pitbull (“Felt Good on My Lips”) were piped in and projected on the big screen for their contributions, while the live band shone bright with the mean riffs of “Real Good Man” and “Between the River and Me.”
After mamas cried to the closing classic ballad “Live Like You Were Dying,” McGraw’s four-song encore included throwing footballs into the crowd with friend Jim Kelly to the tune of “I Like It, I Love It.” McGraw successfully set the party tone for the summer at Darien Lake, and country fans will get plenty more of it.
The two openers took different turns down roads well-traveled within the modern sounds of country. Nashville darling duo Love and Theft opened with a seven-song set of polished pop built around the country-clean harmonies of Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson. The two split lead vocal duties while playing mostly acoustic rhythm guitar alongside a trio on electric guitar, bass and drums. The ballad “Girls Look Hot in Trucks,” corny as it is – as songs with the Warren Brothers on co-writing credits often are – still carries the country credo of truth. Liles asserted himself as the superior singer with a more piercing tone and an extra gear in “If You Ever Get Lonely.”
Second opener Brantley Gilbert came off as more pro wrestler than country singer, the caricatured North Georgia native proudly displaying the sign of the horns throughout the eight-song set he performed with power-chord support from a similarly stiff-upper-lipped quartet. His rebel image projected much more effectively than his raspy voice; frankly, the former is more marketable.