George Strait, Ronnie Milsap Heat Up Chicago Concert

Taylor Swift Still Winning Over Fans One Show at a Time

CHICAGO — One’s 64. One’s 54. And one’s only 17.

But when Taylor Swift opened George Strait’s concert with Ronnie Milsap on Thursday night (Feb. 15) near here, her rookie status meant little to the crowd. All they saw was a country music phenom with the goods to become a legend herself.

At the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill., the three artists packed in close to 12,000 fans. Some were there for Milsap and some for Swift. But judging from the Wrangler jeans everywhere, most were there for Strait.

And they didn’t come looking for pyrotechnics, guitar jams or crowd banter. That’s not what a Strait show is about. It’s about his music. His unwavering voice sounded just as strong and pure as ever on classics like “The Fireman,” “Amarillo by Morning” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.” Songs about Texas and rodeos seemed to warm up the fans on a sub-zero night. Not one to fall prey to fashion whims, Strait’s tried-and-true uniform — starched shirt, pressed jeans and a cowboy hat — sent the message that if the songs are ageless, it doesn’t matter what you wear.

The in-the-round production, a diamond-shaped stage in the center of the arena floor, was supposed to bring the music out into the audience more so than with an end-stage set up. That’s the optimist’s point of view. The pessimist, however, sees it as a concert that only provides a great view about 25 percent of the time as the artists change positions on the stage. But Strait, 54, methodically sang two songs at each corner, giving each side of the arena a good view for a portion of the show.

As Strait moved around, his 11-man Ace in the Hole band stayed put. The twin fiddles, long a Strait tradition, gave “Take Me Back to Tulsa” enough Western swing to bring a few fans to their feet.

Newer hits off his latest album, It Just Comes Natural, didn’t have the same effect. Strait played some solid tunes, just ones that weren’t as familiar — at least yet. But “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” and “Wrapped” seemed destined for radio airplay. And the title track, which just arrived at No.1 this week, was a favorite of the almost 30-song set.

After nearly two hours of hit after hit, Stait ventured into Johnny Cash country by wrapping the show with his own livelier take on “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Milsap was on hand just before Strait with an hour-long set of his own. Opening with “Stranger in My House,” Milsap, 64, was a nice surprise for the Strait and Swift fans. Just about everyone sang along with him on his ’80′s crossover tunes such as “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World” and “Smoky Mountain Rain” and on a brilliant cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 “Honky Tonk Women.”

And Milsap’s always good for a laugh, too. “I was on the bus today, signing autographs, till I thought I’d go blind. I didn’t,” he joked. His new single, “You Don’t Know My Love,” is much more country than the pop he’s known for, with a little more twang in his voice and more harmony from his backing vocalists.

The crowd gave Milsap repeated standing ovations every time he stood up from his piano to sing.

Starting the night was Swift. Despite some remote parking lot shuttle-bus snafus, the seats were almost full when the teenager started her tiny four-song set. She was barely on stage for a half hour, but she accomplished so much. She established herself as the “Tim McGraw”-song girl in the anonymous world of country radio. She let everyone know just how young she was (“Just a year ago I was sitting in high school”). She gave everyone a sampling of her vocal range. And she showed off her gift for songwriting. With a couple of revenge songs in her arsenal, Swift came out swinging on “Picture to Burn,” with lyrics that are so Generation Y.

Before she started her new single, “Teardrops on My Guitar,” Swift told the audience about the guy who inspired it. “I try to be a nice person,” she said, “but if you break my heart, I’m gonna write a song about it.” Her connection with the fans was so smooth, it felt like she’d been touring for years. And like a genuine road warrior, she promised she’d stay until everyone who wanted an autograph and a photo got one. Close to a thousand people lined up, each one walking away with a souvenir and a smile. Her bohemian handkerchief-hem dress, cowboy boots and Stevie Nicks hair were a refreshing change from the jeans and T-shirt look of so many other female artists.

Every young country singer is positioned as someone who is poised for greatness. But if this — a gold album, a Top 5 single and a tour with Strait — is what Swift does while she’s still in high school, her future is bound to be full of good things.
The Strait tour continues for 10 more dates with its final stop in Uncasville, Conn., on March 10.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.