"I'm from a map dot," Tim McGraw sang shortly after taking the stage at the Susquehanna Bank Center on Friday night, "a stop sign on a blacktop." But McGraw, who took the stage to the decidedly un-countryish sounds of Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive," is defined as much by big-tent showmanship as small-town sentiment, sometimes to the latter's detriment.
Two Lanes of Freedom, McGraw's 12th studio album, is his first since extricating himself from a contract with Nashville's Curb Records, his home for the previous two decades. But while McGraw may be free to plot his own course, the album sticks to the main roads; it offers many sounds, but they're all familiar ones.
Backed by an eight-piece band, McGraw, 46, delivered a two-hour set as brawny as the singer himself, who took the stage in jeans, a black cowboy hat, and a sheer shirt that hugged his bicep tattoos. Although the crowd, whose excitement spilled out of the Susquehanna Bank Center before the show, needed little encouragement, the fires were stoked by opener Brantley Gilbert, whose not-especially-Southern rock incorporated the double kick drum stomp of heavy metal. McGraw sings nostalgically of his rural roots, but Gilbert hails from "the land of barbed wire and moonshine whiskey."
The 40 million records McGraw has sold in this country are testament to his perennial appeal, although his attempts to keep up his currency can be painfully transparent. The monster riff of "Truck Yeah" is sturdy enough to withstand McGraw's claim to have "Lil Wayne poppin' on my iPod," but the virtual cameo by Pitbull, whose prerecorded rap was dropped in over the end of "Felt Good on My Lips," was simply contrived.
McGraw was more in his element collaborating, so to speak, with the equally absent Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, who added vocals and guitar to the new album's "Highway Don't Care." Swift first came to prominence with a song about growing up on McGraw's music, but from the way the audience's female voices took up her part, it seems the debt's been repaid in full.
McGraw's softer side came through in selections from his back catalog, especially the plaintive "Everywhere," where the vagabond singer pines for the woman and the town he left behind.
But the emphasis was always on making the biggest impact, even if it meant pounding the life out of his more complex songs. The tart, tongue-in-cheek "Mexicoma" came off more like one of Kenny Chesney's bottoms-up party anthems. But when you've got the pedal to the metal, there's not much time to admire the scenery.