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Add it up: 2 stars, 1 spotlight

Times Staff Writer

Thursday was quite a day for Los Angeles-area country music fans. In the morning, the city lost its only country radio station when KZLA-FM (93.9) abruptly changed its format to R&B.; Then in the evening, some 17,000 fans got the chance to ease their pain through an audience with country’s royal couple.

If Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s three-night run at Staples Center opened on an ominous day for their brand of music, the singers didn’t let on during their 2 1/2 -hour show. McGraw didn’t even drop a shout-out to the station into his pro-forma thank you to country radio.

This is the first time that the two singers -- who conduct separate careers that periodically congeal in a mushy ballad -- have toured together since 2000, and although country has elevated its Kennys, Keiths and Tobys to star status in that period, these veterans are hanging in there, with their albums still selling in the millions and the award shows still bestowing some (albeit decreasing) recognition.

There was something a bit old-fashioned about Thursday’s show, though -- notably, an absence of the staging excesses that turn so many country concerts into exercises in artificiality these days.

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The singers kept materializing somewhat awkwardly, popping into sight on platforms rising from below the stage. That aside, the production was pretty basic, with the performers utilizing four extended ramps to make contact with a good portion of the crowd.

But that stage, which looked like a ceiling fan sitting in the center of the floor, was problematic in a key way, especially for a tour titled “Soul2Soul II.”

Instead of creating intimacy, the structure encouraged distance and isolation, with band members separated by the central platform and the vast span of the extensions prompting the players to position themselves in what could have been different ZIP Codes.

McGraw and Hill tended to wander far from each other in some of their shared segments, and although they mercifully avoided any forced banter, they could find a way to inject some sparks of humor and affection into the proceedings -- ideally, something that would shed some light on the chemistry between these musically mismatched artists.

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Except for the duets that opened each performer’s segment and the three-song encore, the show is basically a Hill set followed by a McGraw set, and the contrast between the two was striking.

Hill is an ethereal pop diva with a flickering connection to pure country music. On stage more than on her records, the Mississippi native suggests a lower-wattage Celine Dion, with an inclination to mow down every lyric in her path with a nuance-free, unvaried expressive pitch.

Intimacy is not her thing, but her honeyed voice was as seductive Thursday as her preternaturally beautiful appearance, and her efforts on her latest album, “Fireflies,” to reestablish some country credibility brought some substance and variety to her hourlong showcase.

If many of Hill’s songs seem to float down from some Hallmark heaven, her husband’s sound as if they spring from the soil.

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McGraw is by no means a purist or traditionalist, but especially in contrast to Hill he seems solidly connected to country’s hardscrabble, blue-collar roots.

Despite his success with the inspirational, go-for-it ballad “Live Like You Were Dying,” he has a honky-tonk heart, and he made much of the fact that the members of his band, the Dancehall Doctors, have been with him for more than a decade.

It’s too bad, then, that he got off to a sluggish start, caused in part by amplification problems that kept his voice nearly inaudible. He picked up steam, though, rolling through a decade of hits with an engaging directness.

The quality of the songs varied, but he pulled some things out of left field, including his version of alt-country wunderkind Ryan Adams’ slinky “When the Stars Go Blue” and, for the final encore with Hill, Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.”

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Maybe if they cut it with an R&B; rhythm track they can get back on KZLA.

*

Hill-McGraw

Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., L.A.

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When: 8 tonight

Price: $49.50 to $125 (sold out)

Contact: (213) 742-7340


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