The difference between Brantley Gilbert and Tim McGraw isn't just a well established western hat or a perfectly taut pair of faded jeans. The difference isn't a matter of a loyal fan base or a bad boy attitude. The difference between Tim McGraw and Brantley Gilbert is simple: about twenty or so years in age and about twenty thousand light years of experience (and maybe sex appeal).
Last night, at the Cruzan Amphitheater, when the two country stars took the stage to celebrate McGraw's twelfth studio album, Two Lanes of Freedom with a show stopping tour by the same name, the difference wasn't distinct, it was glaring.
Gilbert took the stage around eight o'clock, rambling about being recently engaged and generally discussing the subject of rednecks with himself or whoever he is looking at in the first couple of rows. He has this badass thing going for him -- the kind that Kid Rock tried to establish for himself when he first hit the scene -- though it didn't seem to translate to much more than a parody of himself on Friday.
A chain hungs from the wallet in his back pocket as Gilbert moved from one alternative pop rock song to the next. After about three songs, he stopped the show to let everyone know that, "it's about to get real redneck in here." And the crowd went wild!. It was only about 8:15 by the time he's took his shirt off for a song called "Take It Outside "-- a testament to his tough guy efforts.
Gilbert is heavily tattooed and lacked the traditional western wear typical of most country stars. He spent the majority of his time on stage spewing unmemorable banter until he reached the subject of getting arrested, which quickly deteriorated into sounds of ignorance. The outcome of this rant amounted to nothing more than Gilbert hollering "I will shoot his ass!," as he hooted and hollered about the second amendment. All of this prefaced a song heavy in the style of Guns N' Roses, though not nearly as weird or entertaining as watching Axl on stage.
Gilbert didn't actually pick up an instrument until the very last song as he rallied what he called, "Gilbert Nation," appropriately signaled by a confederate style flag with those words scrawled across it. The flags are even on sale for a paltry $200. Small price to pay to look like an asshole.
And herein lies the difference between Tim McGraw and Brantley Gilbert.
The lights cut off, and silhouettes of the band took the stage, though McGraw's signature hat was nowhere to be seen. Just as the crowd seemed to grow restless enough, all sorts of excitement stirred from the back of the pavilion.
Just one flip of a spotlight, a big black hat started swimming though the audience from the back of the house. The gesture of entering the stage by trekking through the audience first, doesn't seem to have much of a purpose, apart from everyone being outrageously delighted to have a glimpse of McGraw up close. He wasn't singing yet, and the band was still just tinkering around on their instruments, but by the time he made it all the way to the stage, McGraw and company were already knocking out the opener, "Green Grass Grows."
Style, Brantley Gilbert, take note.
He stopped to mention, proceeds from ticket sales are donated to Operation Home Front, using his stage time to give the audience something useful to think about instead of ranting about shooting someone.
Class, Gilbert, class.
McGraw's show was like a cool respite of water returning to the sea after a relentless crash on shore. His experience shined as bright as his dewy tan biceps. The dude is in his late forties and doing pretty well for himself in the physical fitness department. McGraw didn't just hop around stage, he strode and was tuned in to the other musicians, knowing all of their parts as well as his own and showing signs of anticipation for each member of the band to display their talents.
And the band has a wealth of capabilities, some pulling double duty as keys and guitar. At some point, it was easy to count four guitarists on stage, and while they all proved themselves in the Western tradition, the band seemed to have a firm hold on the rock sound as well, peeling apart chord scales during any given solo they tore into. The keyboardist also played an accordion, which is the last thing anyone expected to see on stage. And the fiddle player kept a low profile right up until the moment where he just didn't, infusing that folk sound into the country pop display.
From the moment McGraw hit the stage, the audience was enslaved and eager to clap along or stomp their feet, the anticipation of him belting out and holding a note for any length of time was unbearable for faces in the crowd. But McGraw kept the energy up the entire time, even when he moved through ballads like "Live Like You Were Dying."
He even avoided a potentially tacky situation, executing two of many duets he recorded in the studio, on stage without the second singer actually being present. A move like this could easily turn sour, but once the audience caught a glimpse of Taylor Swift on the giant screen behind him during "Highway Don't Care," the duet was more than warmly received, and repeated when McGraw performed "Felt Good on My Lips" featuring Pitbull (Please legitimately get Pitbull on stage next time, Tim. That would just get nuts).
Short set breaks were segmented by blips of electronic music (at one point Imogen Heap burst through the PA), which moved the listener through not just any country show, but a multi-genre adventure, what felt like the musical influences that affected McGraw's stage presence, attitude and sound.
Playing for over two and a half hours straight, McGraw's talent far exceeds the "hat tricks" of our day, which speaks volumes for why his music endures year after year (minus the miserable blemish that is "Indian Outlaw" -- the only song in his repertoire that can be considered truly questionable for its lyrics more than anything and "too Southern" in its correctness, politically speaking), and why he continues to be so well respected in the industry. The man can sign autographs (claiming members of the audience skipped their prom for the show), take his picture with your iPhone, and carry a tune all at once without even stressing a seam on his all too fitted acid washed jeans. The Two Lanes of Freedom show is the perfect kickoff to summer music at Cruzan, and all of the country music that tends to float on through south Florida this time of year.
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