George Strait US Airways Center 2/7/2014
How many songs does an artist have to play to make a great concert? 15? That's pretty sub-par for a headliner, but some acts skate by on it. 20? There are many renowned tenured musicians who operate at that number. With a reputation in music circles as King George, however, even that will not be enough.
How about 33? Last night, at the sold-out US Airways Center, George Strait fans that were lucky enough to be online in the first few minutes after tickets went on sale months ago, got their money's worth -- and then some -- 33 tightly woven and timeless ballads that encompassed the legacy of a true pillar of country music .
Country music fans flooded downtown Phoenix with a sea of cowboy hats in all shapes and sizes, belt buckles to match, and heel-stomping, shit-kicking boots in the hours leading up to the show. Lines stretched outside the doors, spilling into the streets, as local country radio station booths entertained the anxious patrons in front of the venue with gift giveaways and contest announcements.
Inside, giant huddles formed around beer vendors as the rest of the attendees were herded into their seats. I couldn't help but consider that Texas native George Strait may be the greatest cowboy to ever live after seeing his massive human cattle drive, and all of us, his 18,000 head of cattle strong, ended up exactly where he wanted us.
Kicking off the Cowboy Rides Away Tour was special guest Martina McBride. Upon entering the stadium, a square stage was revealed to be in the center of the floor and the house was already packed from top to bottom around the arena bowl. McBride took full advantage of her 360 degree view as she bounced and danced around all four corners of the stage to welcome the audience and sing her array of hits.
A staple in the country genre for 25 years, now, McBride's voice was as powerful as it has always been as she fired off sing-along tunes like "Anyway", "Independence Day", and "I Love You".
The strongest crowd reaction came from a wild and loud female demographic when McBride tore into "This One's for the Girls".
"Wow," McBride told the crowd during a tremendous standing ovation. "I'll never forget that."
Finally, all the hype came to life and it was time to welcome the man of the hour; the King, the Troubadour, George Strait. Escorted out of a tunnel by a handful of security guards, Strait made his way through the crowd and onto the stage where he slung his old familiar acoustic guitar over his shoulder to a deafening roar of cheers. Rocking the signature George Strait look, what I would describe as sharp rodeo attire with a button-up shirt, denim pants, a black cowboy hat and boots, he waved to his fans in all directions and then dove into "The Fireman". And while his face may be showing his age, acceptable I would assume after almost forty years of entertaining, his voice and powerful stage presence was as hypnotic and sharp as anything I have seen in some time.
Even more of a testament to George Strait's legacy is not the presence of the man himself on stage, but rather the generation spanning and sprawling ages of his fans in the audience from young to old.
Strait paused a short time into his set, and with a very humble and heartfelt tone, thanked all of his fans for years of support and then recalled a memory of when he played the opening of the US Airways Center building in the 90's.
For more than two hours, the audience was along for this ride as Strait seamlessly transitioned back and forth from his slower love ballads to the countless two-step and swing dance inducing chart toppers of his past. Two of the major highlights from Strait's performance came in the middle of those two hours. First, Martina McBride came back to the stage to join the King and the two of them embodied the powerhouse country couple Johnny Cash and June Carter when they did their own rendition of "Jackson".
The second highlight came when Strait invited retired military general Leroy Cisco to join him. General Cisco controlled the microphone for the next few minutes as he brought another soldier onto the stage and introduced him to the crowd, explaining that this man had recently been wounded in action and had been working through the slow painful process of recovery.
"He was awarded a Purple Heart for his injury," General Cisco stated, right before he handed the young soldier a set of keys to a brand new house in Tucson. Along with the new house, Wal-Mart also donated a new TV, a year's worth of groceries, and every George Strait album on their shelves.
Needless to say, the crowd went wild, and to hear an entire arena start chanting, "USA," is pretty surreal.
The musical anthems soon recommenced, and the crowd carried on with their monstrously loud decibel of cheers and screams throughout the entire show. The audience was so damn loud inside that stadium, in fact, that I actually cannot think of a way to properly describe it. Yes, I am aware that it is my job as the writer to convey to you, the beloved reader and clicker of articles, a clear and vivid picture, but sitting here, with my ears still ringing, it's just not working. Instead, I will offer a fun fact: Willie Nelson once summed up country music by saying it's nothing more than "three chords and the truth." I can safely say that nobody masterfully crafts the truth around a melody quite like George Strait. One of his best truthful tales has to be "Troubadour", and during the performance of it on this night, the crowd was reciting every honest word like scripture.
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After two hours, Strait left the stage with his band in tow, but the crowd needed more. He soon reemerged for an encore to sing about why he now hangs his hat in Tennessee during the song "All My Ex's Live in Texas", along with "The Cowboy Rides Away", "Same Kind of Crazy", and to also once again channel the late Johnny Cash with his version of "Folsom Prison Blues".
After all was said and done, the lights had come up, and the festivities concluded, George Strait had just pulled off another fantastic show, but this one seemed different as he waved goodbye for what could be the last time. As he turned and left the stage, with the right kind of imagination, you could almost see a scorching Arizona sunset in the distance, sinking at the end of a dusty trail, and his king sized silhouette headed directly toward it as the cowboy rode away.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Last Night: George Strait at US Airways Center The Crowd: Country music loving fans spanning a great divide of age groups. The majority of them wearing cowboy hats and boots. A lot of girls in cut-off shorts and tank tops. Overheard in the Crowd: The entire crowd chanting "USA" is actually still the main thing sticking out in my head. Personal Bias: I've seen a lot of concerts in many different genres, and after last night, I think I would gladly bet on the crowd volume of a George Strait concert against damn near any other band.
Set List: The Fireman Check Yes Or No Ocean Front Property Marina Del Rey Blame It on Mexico A Fire I Can't Put Out Nobody In His Right Mind Would've Left Her Here for a Good Time Arkansas Dave Jackson (with Martina McBride) Golden Ring (with Martina McBride) River of Love You Look So Good In Love I Saw God Today I Can Still Make Cheyenne Drinkin' Man That's What Breaking Hearts Do I Believe Give it Away 80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper Lead On Amarillo by Morning The Chair Fool Hearted Memory I Got a Car I'll Always Remember You Give it All We Got Tonight Troubadour Unwound Same Kind of Crazy (encore) All My Ex's Live in Texas (encore) Folsom Prison Blues (encore) The Cowboy Rides Away (encore)