FULL HOUSE, FIVE-SONG STUD

It was old hat and new house in downtown Phoenix this past Saturday night as neocountry godfather George Strait inaugurated the fresh, flashy digs at the new America West Arena. The young crowd, clad mostly in multigallon brims, achingly tight Wranglers and dead reptile and bird boots, began gathering in earnest a fair two and a half hours before showtime. Although such promptitude stemmed primarily from the crowd's eagerness to see Old Possum Eyes, it was also in anticipation of parking problems (absolutely none!) and other glitches peculiar to such grand grand openings. Happily, few such annoyances occurred--before showtime.

On the old-hat side of things, Strait remains a dependable, generous, people-pleasin' performer. Although his star has been dimmed of late by such young country supernovas as Garth Brooks, Clint Black (Mr. Lisa Hartman) and Alan Jackson, Strait isn't one to pout. From his "Fireman" hello through more than 20 other tunes, Strait simply delivers what his fans want and what he's got plenty of: hits.

Sampling only lightly from his newest MCA disc, Holding My Own (although a pair of choices, including the Dean Dillon-penned title track, were nicely executed and warmly received), Strait seemed content to elicit the usual shrill crescendos of approval with such groundbreaking hat classics as "Marina del Rey," "All My Exes Live in Texas," "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?" and the crowd-rousing "Oceanfront Property in Arizona." As per the Strait norm, his ask-me-for-an-encore selection was "The Chair," a balladesque compendium of pickup lines and bar lies that results in a sweet little countrified affair. The sold-out house roared with approval. Although he seemed to have difficulty reaching his upper scale, Strait's lower notes captured a richer color. The trade-off was to the audience's benefit.

As in past Valley visits, Strait proffered no new wrinkles and little conversation as he plowed through his burgeoning body of work. His consistent avoidance of innovation and rather taciturn onstage countenance sparks the same growling every year--by everybody but his wide-eyed legions of adorers. Yet, even those who habitually whine about the predictability of his performance must give a tip of their Stetsons to Strait's topflight Ace-in-the-Hole Band.

This eight-piece congregation of bow-wielders, pickers and pluckers has few peers, and none when a tune calls for a bit of Texas swing or twin (or triple!) fiddles. And the lonesome fiddle break in "Amarillo by Morning" brought forth a stand-up-and-holler response from the crowd.

Rising Music City star Pam Tillis (daughter of country legend M-m-m-mel) opened for Strait with a lively, chatty, nine-song set, including her hit "Maybe It Was Memphis." While mushy at first, the board keepers seemed to clean up the sound about halfway through, although it never did become crisp and clear. Of course, the crowd seemed little fazed by this--not with George onstage.

Sound isn't the main concern during a basketball game anyway. The Strait show was a good test of the arena's capabilities in handling a sold-out house: Strait's gig packed the joint--which will be the case for 40-some Suns games. Early returns were mostly positive.

Gripes centered on the lack of drinking fountains outside and the dearth of midshow smoking exits. Of course, no smoking is allowed inside the spanking-new confines of the arena, but only a few exits were opened to accommodate those with the tobacco habit--and none in the upper tier. Those folks had to descend to the lower level and share wholly inadequate space with downstairs patrons. If this remains the case, the poor peons in the nosebleed seats won't be too happy.

Long, serpentine lines betrayed a tough time at the women's latrines, too. Yet, this might not prove so serious a problem during Suns matches as with this particular event: George Strait draws a disproportionate number of females to his shows. Although a few ladies in line expressed frustration with the lengthy wait for relief, most seemed resigned to their fate. (One teased-tressed cowgirl emerged stuffing a brush in her purse. She commented to her gal pal with all solemnity, "George likes me with my hair combed.")

Working to chilly perfection, however, is the arena's air-conditioning system. Even with more than 18,000 packing the Suns' new palace, only those with severely damaged metabolisms could have broken a sweat. This is a majorly cool difference from most Valley venues. Equally pleasant are the plush Suns'-purple seats on which ticketholders will perch, though tight spacing might leave long-gammed hoops fans with their styles a touch cramped. Designated beer-and-frank haulers will have to walk a fine line.

Unlike the lines at the women's heads, those at the concession stands moved crisply. Still, this might have been due less to the adroitness of the hot dog-dealing staff as to wicked sticker shock: Four big bucks were required for a dozen puny ounces of beer. Watch it, Jerry: With purse-poppin' prices like these, even the most rootin'-tootin' beer lover will turn into a teetotaler for the night.

Bud in hand or not, however, Suns' watchers are bound to love the arena's intimacy and excellent sight lines. And even if a particular game turns into a boring blowout, the evening can easily be filled by reading advertisements, which occupy every spare space available.

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