With George Jones dead, Alan Jackson disappointing at Carnegie Hall last year, John Anderson too weird, Bruce Robison not commercial enough, Brad Paisley too smug, Blake Shelton too shallow, Merle Haggard too old, dozens of good stuff and pick up trucks not good stuff enough and Vince Gill never venturing to the North East, that leaves George Strait, with over 60 country charting hits and 35 gold or platinum albums to his name, the biggest country act to venture this close since George Jones himself back in 2006. So all the local cowboys and cowgirls showed up in force to help celebrate the superb singer and song arranger’s farewell to life on the road, last night.
Performed in the round to a nearly sold out Prudential Center, Strait lead the 11 piece Ace In The Hole Band through a 33 song, relentlessly hit filled, 150 minutes set featuring a duet or two with opening act country Queen Martina McBride (playing first June Carter and then Tammy Wynette), last seen selling out Radio City Music Hall, an astounding show stopping version of “You Wreck Me” to open the encore, and so many hits that the mind boggles, from borderline novelty “Ocean Front Property” to even earlier “Amarillo By Morning” and last song of the set proper, his first smash “Unwound”.
Throughout the performance, Strait’s vocals are precise, beautiful. He sings with so much heart, he seems to leave it on every song, even bathetic “I Believe” written in response to the Newtown shootings, he gets away with. “I Believe” is off his excellent 2013 Love Is Everything, and he also pulls out “I Got A Car” -a smart story song, and “Give It All We’ve Got Tonight”.
But on stage, Strait is rigid. His neck is too short, and his head clicks like he was a bird pecking and then looking up for predators. His posture his stiff and while he is a friendly MC, he is also born to be stoical. Strait enlisted in the army in 1971 and spent four years stationed in Hawaii before joining a military-sponsored country band called Rambling Country. He was honorably discharged in 1975 and by 1981 had his first hit which he played last night. In 1982 “”If You’re Thinking You Want a Stranger (There’s One Coming Home)” (which he didn’t perform) started a long line of Top 10 Hits.
Mid set, Strait gave wounded soldier Robert Gibb a house, a big screen TV and a year of free groceries as part of his association with the “Military Warriors Support Foundation”, bringing it all back home. Also, according to Wikipedia Strait’s “daughter Jenifer (born October 6, 1972) was killed in an automobile accident in San Marcos on June 25, 1986, at the age of 13. The family set up the Jenifer Lynn Strait Foundation, which donates money to children’s charities in the San Antonio area.” Proof that you can’t hide from life, it’ll come and get you.
It is worth noting that the house this was some hardcore jingoism with a retired General giggling like a six year old girl about how Gibb “sent those scumbags to hell” At times the audiences erupted in screams of “USA USA” while an American flag appeared on the close circuit TVs. I am something of a patriot myself, but there is a great deal of difference between respecting bravery and cheering death. Strait has given away 37 homes so far on this tour and Gibb’s wife was in tears, it is a shame they couldn’t present it at the expense of runts in Iraq. Out of the 559 homes “Military Warriors” has given away, 828 children now live in their own home.
How do you feel now? Ambiguous? How about this, then. George Strait doesn’t write his own material for the most part. “”All My Ex’s Live in Texas”, “Ocean Front Property”, “”You Look So Good in Love”… these are all written by a Nashville mafia of professional country songwriters. This air of professionals, of a job well done, as Strait plays all four corners of the square in the circle stage, is palpable. The Ace In The Hole play with a constancy exemplified by a great slide guitar player and even better back up singers so subtle, it is like somebody underlined a passage in your book which you don’t notice but still find yourself paying special attention to.
Earlier in the evening Martina McBride played a super hour long set as well highlighted by a sassy “Teenage Daughters” and a superb “Love’s The Only House” with Martina blowing a mean harp. But both Martina and George were stymied by a muffled sound system and it makes you wish you were seeing them at Carnegie Hall or Radio City Music Hall or even the Beacon. The problem with Arena rock is the Arena. Even the latest local Arena, Barclay Center, doesn’t sound great. Maybe there is nothing to be done about it.
As for George, this is his farewell tour and you get the feeling it is really his farewell tour and so it has added layers of significance to “Troubador”, “I’ll Always Remember You”, “The Cowboy Rides Away”. Indeed, every song has a layer of pathos and Strait, whether upside swinging or down low brooding, sings them that way. As if this is the first time you will ever get to hear it and the last time you will ever get to hear it. But he keeps the stories at a minimum and the retrospection just an anecdote here and a date there. Mostly, for a guy known as taciturn, his affection for his audience comes through clearest of all.
And perhaps most importantly, his version of “You Wreck Me” brings you all the way back to Strait’s first band, a garage rock and roll band. To say Strait gets Petty is to underestimate how Strait transforms it to the sort of country rock you just plain don’t hear anymore. For one thing, all you need to get Strait rocking is the word “ridin'” and he is off:”Tonight we ride, right or wrong” he sings and the band matches his hard hard swing through the song; the song doesn’t twang, it rocks and rumbles and Strait is in magnificent voice. Perhaps, now at the end of his career it is worth imagining the road not taken for an old Troubadour. Rock and roll’s loss, folks.
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