All the ingredients were there.
You had Tim McGraw, one of the most artistically and commercially successful singers in country-music history, a guy who puts close to 20,000 rear ends in PNC Music Pavilion pretty much every summer.
You had BB&T Ballpark, a gem of a baseball stadium with a honey of a view of uptown’s skyline that – even after three seasons as the home of the Charlotte Knights – still looks like it just opened yesterday.
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And you had about as nice an afternoon, weather-wise, as one could have hoped for in late December in North Carolina: temps in the high 50s, a mixture of puffy clouds and brilliant sunshine.
Yessir, all the ingredients were there on Thursday afternoon for a Belk Bowl FanFest concert to end all Belk Bowl FanFest concerts, after several years on that makeshift stage at that ugly spot across from Bank of America Stadium.
There was just one thing missing – or, rather, several thousand things were missing.
Despite warnings from both Belk and the Knights that they’d have to cap entry to 10,000 Belk Bowl ticket holders (I’ll explain this in a sec), they didn’t come anywhere near having to turn people away.
Several kids and adults were playing games of catch in left field, where there should have been Tim McGraw fans. I overheard photographers and videographers trying to come up with angles they could shoot that would “make the place look full.” The gulf between the general-admission folks standing on the field and the assigned-seat patrons seemed a mile wide.
In fact, had I been in charge, I definitely would have invited the people sitting 200 and 300 feet away to come down on the PortaFloor – especially since the lookie loos peeking through the fence on Mint Street were closer to the action than most of the bleachers – and I maybe even would have started begging lookie loos to come right on in, if only to help liven the place up.
(Problem is, that would have irritated legit ticket holders. The original pitch was: If you buy a ticket to Thursday night’s bowl game between Arkansas and Virginia Tech at nearby Bank of America Stadium, Belk thanked you by inviting you to see McGraw “for free.”)
The Knights did not provide official attendance figures, but my guesstimate around showtime was between 1,000 and 1,500. I asked a police officer for a second opinion, without leading him in any direction, and he gave the exact same range.
In other words, it was less than ideal. There’s room for improvement, if the goal is to fill the place (and it should be). But this was a major step up from previous years, and if Belk can keep drawing artists like McGraw and 2015 headliner Carrie Underwood, I say keep trying to optimize the fan experience. We now know 10,000 is an unrealistic attendance goal under this system – something is flawed if you can’t attract 2,000 people to a Tim McGraw concert with two months’ notice – so let’s come up with a better way.
I leave it to the professionals to figure that out. …
As for McGraw’s actual performance, he came through with a warm, muscular one, as he has each of the six times he’s performed in Charlotte over the past 10 years, and that includes his historic “Brothers of the Sun” show at Bank of America Stadium with Kenny Chesney in 2012.
The sound mix was pristine and helped give rich detail to his distinctive baritone, and the setting – as I mentioned – was tough to beat, with blue skies, the Bank of America tower and its shorter-but-still-imposing neighbors providing a gleaming backdrop.
His 16-song set ran the gamut time-wise, from his controversial 1994 breakout track “Indian Outlaw” to the biographical new hit “How I’ll Always Be,” and theme-wise, from superficial 2012 party hit “Truck Yeah” to deeply emotional cuts such as 2004’s “Live Like You Were Dying.”
McGraw showed off his football awareness by tossing a local reference into “I Like, I Love It”: “She’s got me saying sugar-pie, honey, darlin’, and dear / I ain’t seen the Panthers play a game all year” (in the original, it’s “the Braves”).
Then the 49-year-old country superstar showed a bit of a lack of awareness, with some awkward football-related banter that very briefly managed to turn almost the entire crowd against him.
“How many Razorback fans we got here?” he shouted, to polite cheers. “How many Hokie fans?” Much louder response. Then: “I gotta confess, I’m an SEC guy, I’m from Louisiana. But I don’t like Arkansas ’cause I’m a Tigers fan.” Boos. “I’m not crazy about the Hokies either.” Much louder boos. “So the good thing is I just get to play music and be neutral.” No discernable response.
In this one specific moment, on this one specific afternoon, maybe it was a good thing that more people weren’t around.
1. “How Bad Do You Want It”
2. “Where the Green Grass Grows”
3. “I Like It, I Love It”
5. “Real Good Man”
6. “Here Tonight”
7. “Just to See You Smile”
8. “One of Those Nights”
10. “Shotgun Rider”
11. “How I’ll Always Be”
12. “Humble and Kind”
13. “Indian Outlaw”
14. “Truck Yeah”
15: “Something Like That”
16. “Live Like You Were Dying”