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Goodbye, George?

Strait's "The Cowboy Rides Away" tour closes out this year's rodeo.

Live Shots

On March 17, a Sunday night, George Strait wrangled 80,020 fans into Reliant Stadium for what is sure to be justthe first of his "farewell" shows here in Houston.

This glut of country fans — only a few thousand short of the total population of Santa Monica, California — broke both RodeoHouston and Reliant all-time attendance records, packing the house to see Strait, Martina McBride and the Randy Rogers Band close this rodeo season.

George Strait set a new Reliant Stadium attendance record...
Photos by Daniel Kramer
George Strait set a new Reliant Stadium attendance record...
...with a crowd of more than 80,000 on St. Patrick's Day.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
...with a crowd of more than 80,000 on St. Patrick's Day.
Merle Haggard had a sold-out Stafford Centre crowd spellbound on March 21.
Jason Wolter
Merle Haggard had a sold-out Stafford Centre crowd spellbound on March 21.

Strait remains the capital-K King of country more than 30 years into his run. Every wave of his hand Sunday made the venue erupt, and the stadium could barely contain the love for him in the room.

The singer remains something of an enigma for the press, though. He's not the most open personality. He doesn't see the need to air out every twist and turn of his life on social media, and his legend (the definition fits him) only seems to grow through the years as every subsequent male country singer attempts to at least grasp at what Strait has done since the early '80s.

Strait's luck with a great songwriter like Dean Dillon ("The Chair," "Ocean Front Property") brings to mind the string of commercial successes that Elton John and Bernie Taupin saw during their heyday.

You won't see him as a judge on a reality show, and he won't be writing a tell-all memoir anytime soon.

For a member of the music press like myself, that is perhaps why he is still so interesting. His songs seem to mirror his audience more than himself, and he sings everyone else's life while we know relatively little about his own, other than through the stray interview or concert ­anecdote.

Sunday night's set list didn't sound like what you would call a last-hurrah collection, though, which solidifies my notion that this wasn't his last Houston go-round. The cowboy may very well be riding away, but he's taking his time.

Last September, Strait said that after 2014 he's done, but he seemed to leave the subject somewhat open-ended.

"I'm gonna miss that," he would say after each and every huge swelling of adoration Sunday.

I mean, how would he himself resist playing "Carrying Your Love with Me" during his final, final show in Houston? He didn't even leave on a horse.

You gotta leave on a horse, Mr. Strait. Then I would know you are done.
_____________________

Night Life

Last Kiss
Popular River Oaks "make-out" bar Marfreless announces its impending closure.

Chris Gray

Rising property fees in its expensive River Oaks surroundings have forced Marfreless, the most famous Houston bar without a sign, to close at the end of the month. The bar's owners announced the news on Marfreless's Web site the evening of March 20.

"Dearest friends, patrons, charities, and fellow establishments of the evening — the owners and staff of Marfreless are grieved to announce the upcoming closing of our iconic Houston landmark bar and lounge," the statement said. "Our tentative last day of business will be Saturday, March 30, 2013.

"While we are actively seeking a new place to call home and another door to paint blue, we have recently and unfortunately joined the ranks of those small businesses which have been forced to adapt to the ever-­increasing cost of fees levied by property ­owners."

The statement added that Marfreless will be effectively throwing a wake for itself until the final last call and welcomed customers to come by and share their "stories of poignancy, excess and debauchery." (See "Openings and Closings" in Eating...Our Words, page 37.)

Marfreless also put out a call for tributes on social media via its Twitter account, @MarfrelessBar, and the hashtag #MarfMoment. It didn't take long, and in fact, these were already being posted days before the news even broke. It was that kind of place.

@shaxperio: "12 year old whiskey, a real femme fatale, and slow sweet jazz from the shadows."

@shoegirl1970: "My ex husband & I had our first date with you! We have 2 beautiful children."

@maslowbeer (posted Feb. 21): "I was making out in the school desk room upstairs @MarfrelessBar when most of u cool cats were in middle school."

Known by the blue door that became the only outdoor sign Marfreless ever needed, and frequently mentioned in "Hidden Houston"-type articles, the 40-year-old bar has long been a popular spot for clandestine assignations. As a friend put it, it was a good "mistress bar." (The couches...)

Marfreless was also awarded "Best Cheap Thrill" in the Houston Press's 2004 Best of Houston® issue, with good reason.
_____________________

Only in Houston

Tablet Fail
A major Houston venue tells fans to leave their iPads and such at home.

Craig Hlavaty

Here comes some news that most everybody should be able to get behind this coming summer concert season.

While updating the Houston Press's online concert calendar with new listings for the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion last week, I discovered that the venue now bans the use of iPads and other tablet devices at all its events. In fact, it has been doing so since last summer.

So saith the Pavilion's Web site:

"Tablets, such as iPads and Kindles, are not permitted in the venue because they are a distraction to other guests and the artists."

Courtney Galle, the Pavilion's marketing and PR manager, says the rule is the venue's alone, not partner Live Nation's. Tablets are considered much more distracting than simple smartphones.

The Pavilion also hosts a variety of performing-arts events, such as performances by the Houston Symphony and numerous dance companies. These groups are usually bound by union rules that prohibit audiences from recording their shows, rules Galle says the Pavilion is backing in full.

Galle says the venue has no plans to ban cell phones, but of course the artist or artists onstage can always do so.

No performers have specifically requested that iPads and tablets be banished, she notes. Instead, Galle says, numerous fans' complaints that the devices were hindering their enjoyment of shows became the deciding factor.

Last year the venu created the Instagram account @pavilion_tx, which Galle says should be updated during every show so fans can check out pictures from onstage.

The venue will give fans who do not leave their tablets at home the option of taking the devices back to their cars, Galle adds, or checking them at the venue's information booth to ­reclaim them at the end of the event.

Galle recommends calling the Pavilion's box office or checking the venue's Web site before attending a show to see what will or will not be permitted. She adds that BuzzFest, which returns to the Pavilion Saturday, April 20, has the most stringent rules that she has seen so far this year.
_____________________

Everybody's Talkin'

Bow Down
Beyoncé takes some heat for her r-rated new track.

Angelica Leicht

Ooh, Beyoncé! I see your potty mouth, and I kinda like it.

Last week Queen B released a new song on Tumblr, "Bow Down/I Been Down," and there's been mass hysteria a-flowin' from the general public over it, as one would expect. It's freakin' Beyoncé.

I mean, who doesn't love a new Bey track? Well, apparently in this case, a lot of folks.

If you haven't heard the backlash, consider yourself lucky. But here Bey's lyrics have deviated from her normal nursery rhymes and — collective gasp for effect, please — include words like "bitch" and "trick." What was she thinking?

The deranged track is full of trap-inspired drum slaps and siren-y synth; it's the definition of overproduced, but in a way that only Beyoncé can pull off. She also throws in a badass nod to Southern hip-hop on the second half of the track, where her vocals get chopped and screwed.

She even raps about bumpin' UGK and the Geto Boys. Screwston, we should be proud, not offended.

Despite the track's redeeming qualities, it seems that the naughty side of Ms. Fierce isn't yet palatable to the general public, and every conservative has come out of the woodwork to bitch about it. (See? The word "bitch" ain't so bad.)

"Bow Down/I Been Down" has been called everything from "troubling" to "misogynistic" and "offensive to women." Critics have even cited the use of "unnecessary swearing" as the source of their woes, to which I say bollocks.

Swearing is never unnecessary, good sirs and madams. I'm also slightly perplexed about the use of "misogynistic" to describe an anthem by a woman, but whatever. I suppose there might be a loophole somewhere.

Is it typical Beyoncé fashion? Hell, no.

But it ain't bad, and it certainly is not worthy of all the hate. To her, I say g'head on, girl; the word "bitch" ain't shit when you hear what Lil' Kim can do.
_____________________

Hillbilly Highway

All the Federales Say
The story behind Willie and Merle's 1983 hit "Pancho and Lefty," as told by Haggard himself.

Chris Gray

Especially in Texas and the Southwest, "Pancho and Lefty" long ago became more than a song and something closer to a pop-culture touchstone. According to Urbanspoon, you can even dine at Pancho & Lefty's Tex-Mex restaurant in St. George, Utah. Unforgivably, it charges separately for chips and salsa, but still.

Written by the late Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho" originally appeared on the onetime Houstonian's mordantly titled 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. According to a PBS interview he gave in the mid-'80s, some time after Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson's version had become a monster hit, Van Zandt and his band were pulled over near Brenham on their way to a gig in Houston. The officers let him out of the speeding ticket because the Washington County dispatchers used the handle "Pancho and Lefty" to identify the two cops.

"I realize I wrote it, but it's hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue," Van Zandt tells the interviewer. "It came through me. It's a real nice song."

Reached recently at his ranch near Redding, California, Haggard says Nelson wanted to cut the song after liking the version on Emmylou Harris's 1977 album Luxury Liner. The two old friends and legendary country songwriters in their own right still talk once or twice a month, Haggard says, noting that they have come to take on a "phenomenal likeness" over the years.

"His bass player died at the end of last year, and mine went into a coma," Haggard says. "We've been married [to the same woman] the same amount of times."

Mostly, Haggard, who will turn 76 on April 6, says he and Nelson will "try to hit each other with a good joke."

Nelson sure hit him with a good one for their "Pancho" duet. As he recalls, Haggard had been staying on Nelson's property outside Austin, working on an entire album with the Red Headed Stranger. He had not slept much in about five days, but finally drifted off on his tour bus somewhere around 4 a.m.

"I had been asleep about ten minutes, and he knocked on my bus," Haggard says. "I got up — anybody else but him and I wouldn't have even opened the door. But I opened the door and said, 'What's going on, Will?'

"I found us a song," came the response.

Even though they had already cut ten or 12 songs, Nelson was sure this was the song for the album.

"I said, 'Boy, that's a great title,'" Haggard says.

He recalls Nelson as having "Pancho" all ready to go but wanting his partner to come into the studio and cut the song live. Nelson had written Van Zandt's lyrics on a paper sack, and unfolded it in front of Haggard.

Haggard remembers resisting at first.

"I said, 'Man, I've been up for five days; I'll do mine in the morning,'" he says. "You go ahead and put the track down — do yours and leave mine open for the morning. I sing a lot better in the morning."

But Nelson pushed right back.

"He said, 'No, I want you to come in here and sing this motherfucker,'" Haggard says. "I said, 'Okay, goddammit, I will.'

"I got up," Hag continues. "I just barely remember going in there. I was about half-awake. I went in there and I cut it with the full intention that I would do it over in the morning."

Except that's not quite what happened.

"I got up in the morning and I said, 'Where's that record at?'" Haggard says. "They said, 'Hell, it's on the way to New York. That son of a bitch is a smash.'"

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