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Hill and McGraw win with big show, big personalities

It's easy to see why Tim McGraw and Faith Hill fell in love when they first toured together. Whatever sparks ignited then were still evident -- 10 years, three kids, and two big careers later -- last night during the first of the pair's two shows at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Which is pretty impressive considering the wattage coming off their stage set up. The design was so elaborate and elegant -- with four video-illuminated ramps bringing them right to the feet of the sold-out crowd, a raised center platform surrounded by their big bands, and an intricate lighting rig -- it could jolt Garth Brooks out of retirement from sheer arena envy.

Luckily country pop's reigning power couple brought their A game, even when singing their B material, and owned that big stage. Hill did it with her gale force vocals, McGraw with his arms-wide-open personality, and together with their graciousness to the fans.

The night began with the pair facing away from each other singing the first of many duets, the bitterly sad ``Like We Never Loved at All." From there Hill and her upbeat band kicked off a 65-minute set that seesawed between her frothy pop hits like ``This Kiss," her big diva ballads including the aching ``Cry," and the more introspective country-folk songs from her most recent album ``Fireflies."

Hill generously made sure to point out that the dream-encouraging title ballad and ``Stealing Kisses" were the product of superb Stoughton singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. Hill brought the house down with the bluesy ``There Will Come a Day" and a stirring, harmony-rich version of the hymn ``It is Well With My Soul" featuring her back up vocalists.

In a credit to the set designer, the transition from Hill to McGraw was seamless, marred only by the choice of song. ``Angry All the Time" is not only, as the title implies, a bummer but also lacking in dynamics, the worst of their recorded duets. The slightly more interesting and much, much sexier ``Let's Make Love" righted the ship before McGraw and his longtime band the Dancehall Doctors kept things moving full steam ahead.

If the capacity crowd of 17,927 were thrilled to see Hill, they went bonkers for her husband, clad in his black cowboy hat and painted-on jeans, and his more formulaic but well-sung tunes.

While some hit their targets dead on -- the weepy ``Don't Take the Girl" and seize-the-day anthem ``Live Like You Were Dying" were big singalongs -- others like the fluffy ``Just to See You Smile" felt a bit thin in the substance department. But as always the silly honky-tonker ``I Like It, I Love It" brought the crowd to its feet.

Hill re-emerged for an encore set of duets including a genial if left-field cover of Bob Marley's ``No Woman, No Cry" -- with all the band members joining in.

The husband and wife finally faced each other and closed the show sitting knee to knee on opposite sides of an old-time radio microphone harmonizing close and sultry on ``I Need You."

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