Tim McGraw doesn’t hide his respect for the pioneers of country music and rock ‘n’ roll. Songs in his 2 1/2-hour show Saturday at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim made earnest nods to such titans as Hank Williams and Elvis Presley.
But his real passion is reserved for the stars of classic-rock radio.
Even before McGraw arrived onstage, hits by artists from Foreigner to Foghat pumped over the house sound system; once he did get things started, he delivered covers of the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman,” the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker,” the Commodores’ “Easy” and other ’70 radio staples.
They sounded as sincere, and as uneventful, as the average bar band’s versions, yet it’s clear that the 36-year-old hunk from Louisiana yearns to be more than just a sex symbol or Mr. Faith Hill.
Once in a while he succeeds. “Red Ragtop,” the mildly controversial first single from his latest album, “Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors,” broaches the subject of abortion, a topic that clocks as much air time on country radio as reasoned analysis of presidential politics.
The Jason White song -- McGraw doesn’t write his own material -- suggests some real thought about a serious subject, unlike McGraw’s first big hit, “Indian Outlaw,” which on Saturday remained every bit as silly as it sounded in 1994.
“Ragtop” traces the arc of a teenage love affair that lets passion run its course, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.
It implies rather than spells out abortion as the solution, but it’s the song’s ending that’s the real letdown. Years later, after the boy and his girlfriend have gone their own ways, he spots a young girl in a convertible who reminds him of his old flame, and suddenly “I was back in that red ragtop on the day she stopped loving me.”
That’s simple heartbreak; a master would have made the connection with the offspring the guy never had and explored the multiplicity of feelings that would have been raised.
In choosing songs, McGraw (who also played Staples Center on Friday) too often stops short of the richly layered likes of Bruce Robison’s “Angry All the Time” or Rodney Crowell’s “Please Remember Me,” exceptions rather than the rule in a repertoire packed with romantic fantasies for his female fans, who outnumbered men at the Pond at least 5 to 1.
That’s why, despite the millions of singles and albums he’s sold over the last decade, there’s still a sizable gulf separating him from the most creative of his country and rock heroes.