George Strait, Reba McEntire Frank Erwin Center, Austin January 14, 2010
Friday night, Aftermath drove to Austin to catch one of the lone Texas stops on this round of tandem touring by the King and Queen of Country, George Strait and Reba McEntire, with Lee Ann Womack as support. Houston will probably not get a Strait gig this year, and Reba didn't line up a RodeoHouston date, so we bolted west.
Sorry, Daniel Johnston, who had a birthday bash thrown for him at Fitzgerald's. Happy birthday, though.
George Strait is one of the few artists that we have actually driven out of town to see, and that list is small. Scott H. Biram, Motorhead, Turbonegro, The Hives and Queens Of the Stone Age have all edged us out of town, but this was our first time leaving Houston to see the King.
Strait and McEntire on the same bill is something to see, and seeing either of them outside the confines of an audio backwater like Reliant Stadium is a treat. The Erwin Center is a bit smaller than the Toyota Center and just a tad bigger than our own Reliant Arena, if they ever want to start having shows there again.
We got inside the arena just in time for the second song of McEntire's set. The more you see a female country artist of McEntire's age and caliber, the more you are reminded about how she was truly one of the first of the modern female acts to embrace the pop life. The difference with McEntire is that she never watered down the twang along the way.
McEntire's set was heavy on the classics, like "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia," "Why Haven't I Heard From You" and "Is There Life Out There?". The fire in the redhead's voice hasn't diminished, and if anything, as she gets older it's getting more forceful and aggressively playful, in the best way possible.
She pulled out her recent pop covers, Beyonce's "If I Were A Boy," from last year's new set All The Women I Am, and Kelly Clarkson's "Because of You," which she recorded as a duet with Clarkson in 2008. The former comes off more as a novelty because the subject matter is more suited to Beyonce, and the boy imagery comes off stilted.
But McEntire now completely and utterly owns Clarkson's song, which covers much of the same territory as McEntire's recorded output. A detour with her former Reba co-star and country comedian Melissa Peterman easily killed ten minutes, and only yielded "I'm A Survivor" in return. We empathized more with the song more than ever for surviving the sketch and not going to grab another beer.
A fun fact about Peterman: She's one of the hookers who hooks up with Carl and Gaear after they get pancakes in Fargo.
"Fancy" was her sole encore, Reba's Bobbie Gentry-penned 1991 single heralded by the opening from the music video playing on the big screens as McEntire came out in a taxicab and man-killing red cocktail dress. For a song about a teen girl getting forced into prostitution, a lot of us guys were singing our hearts out.
The gallop of the Ace In the Hole Band's "Deep In the Heart of Texas" summoned Strait to the stage in his trademark Wranglers, boots, and western shirt - a red one, to support Red Shirt Fridays and show solidarity for our troops in harm's way all around the world. Rocks Off was also wearing a red shirt, because Strait told us to.
Strait is still touring behind 2009's Twang - one of his most popular in the past few years of output, with four singles hitting radio - and he led off the night with the title song. After "Twang" came "Ocean Front Property" and an onslaught of hits from the past 30 years.
The thing about Strait that has always kept us coming back, almost 24 years since our first show, has been the traditional resolve in his stage act and his music. His songs have few pop-culture references, he doesn't need to wear rhinestone-covered jeans to sell albums, nor does he fall into covering pop songs for the hell of it. When he does do a cover, it's from someone massive, as you will see later.
Strait proves that the country template doesn't need to be screwed with, unless you are looking for a quick buck or a flash-in-the-pan entry onto the charts. Sure, he may look stiff onstage, but so did all the legends of his ilk who weren't tainted by rock and roll pomp.
He is the tradition at this point in the game, and closing in on 60 years of age, he's still relevant. You can go two years wallowing in the pop-country wastelands of guys wearing leather cowboy hats and sparkly vests, and then Strait speaks up and releases a new album and everyone feels ashamed for getting their hair gel everywhere and covering that Journey song.
The music from Twang, which Strait spread out over Friday's 30-song set, is mostly steeped in thoughts of aging, family and finding out you aren't invincible, very much a continuation of the grizzled vibe of 2008's Troubadour.
Over the course of the evening, Strait and company didn't stray too far back in time, save for a handful of his classic warhorses, which is a small shame. We wouldn't mind hearing a set of only stuff recorded before 1990, but that's a fanboy talking.
The halfway point of the show came bearing some of the most sad-bastard songs he has ever recorded, besides the ones about family and dying. The iconic "The Chair" was the first one out of the gate, with "I Cross My Heart" and "Amarillo By Morning" coming up behind.
These are the songs you find yourself listening to while cuddled up with a Lone Star and a shot of Wild Turkey next to a sticky jukebox after you have loaded your dollars into it for what felt like five minutes, because you don't care about money anymore because women are all mean and women cost money.
"Living For the Night" is a damned devastator, chronicling another crippling chapter in the life of the male protagonist in his canon. This time around he tells his former love that "The whiskey kills the man you've turned me into..."
For the encore, we got little-known 2005 nugget "High Tone Woman" to start. The lone old-school blast was "All My Ex's Live In Texas," which had us playing some variation of air fiddle at our seat. We wonder if we did the same all those years ago when we first saw him.
Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" wasn't a surprise, as Strait has been known to do it as his closer these past few years. It's fun to hear him get funky and try keep up with Cash's original phrasing, which is just a tad faster than what Strait is used to on his own songs.
It's also great to have two of the biggest country figures matched up, even if Strait is as strait-laced (no pun intended) as Cash was a hell-raiser.
If you just slow down and look for it, there seems to be a perfect Strait song for every moment in your life. As long as there are men, women, heartache, and family, there is a three-minute remedy or potion in his songbook for you.
Personal Bias: We were born and raised in Texas, and we have proclaimed the man to be the "Morrissey Of Texas" for his predilection towards the sad-bastard genre.
The Crowd: Lots of families, groups of blue-hairs, Friday-night cowboys, and girls double-fisting yards of margaritas.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I want Reba to be my mother-in-law." Agreed, or at least some crazy Mrs. Robinson action, right? High-five!
Random Notebook Dump: George Strait is like a Westworld robot or something. He was under hot lights for nearly two in jeans and a starched western shirt, and barely showed signs of sweating.
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GEORGE STRAIT SET LIST
Deep In The Heart of Texas Twang Ocean Front Property Honk If You Honky Tonk I Can Still Make Cheyenne Wrapped Run Seashores of Old Mexico Check Yes or No The Fireman Same Kind of Crazy Texas A Fire I Can't Put Out Arkansas Dave Where Have I Been All My Life How 'Bout Them Cowgirls The Breath You Take River of Love The Chair Gotta Get To You I Cross My Heart I Saw God Today Amarillo By Morning Living For the Night Give It Away Troubadour Unwound
High Tone Woman All My Ex's Live In Texas Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash cover) The Cowboy Rides Away