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George Strait Charms Sunny Tampa Bay
Fourth Annual Festival Gets Underway
TAMPA -- Call it clockwork country.

For the fourth year in a row, the jukebox binge known as the George Strait Country Music Festival went off without an apparent hitch in its giddyap -- that is, unless you count the number of concertgoers who should have reconsidered their wardrobe. Or lack thereof.

That's because Saturday's opening show at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium came on a day when the weather was clearly ordered by the chamber of commerce. Bare-chested men and tummy-baring women -- some who should have known better -- strolled the sunlit grounds with beer in their hands and Nashville boogie in their souls.

And both, it appeared, seemed satisfied.

Indeed, by the time the headliner took the stage, the crowd of about 45,000 was chanting his name. "GEORGE, GEORGE, GEORGE" went on precisely at 8:45 p.m., opening with the silly ditty, "The Fireman," and closing with the laughable "Love Bug," while cramming more than two dozen tunes in between.

Ever the gentleman crooner, Strait's onstage demeanor is so laid back -- and so lacking in theatrics -- that scribes are more likely to comment on the ever present crease in his jeans than on how he moves inside them. His set with the Ace in the Hole band, therefore, reflected the elegant ease that is his stageside trademark Though he repeatedly told the crowd that this was his first show in nine months, Strait didn't particularly need the caveat. But then what entertainer does when he can play a 90-minute set and still have about, oh, a gazillion hits left in his repertoire?

And what did he play? Among others: "Amarillo by Morning," "Check Yes or
No," "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind," "I Can't See Texas From Here," and "Lead On." He also crooned through "Write This Down," which Tampa Bay area audiences seemed to remember well -- Strait filmed the video for his hit at Raymond James Stadium during his 1999 gig.

Clearly the biggest crowd-pleaser was the inevitable duet with Alan Jackson, who wandered on stage in a pair of shorts and tennis shoes to sing the Grammy-nominated "Murder on Music Row." The blond singer had performed only moments before Strait, completing a set that was right in keeping with his characterization as Nashville's most nonchalant cowboy.

In fact, on Saturday, Jackson sang as he always does -- as if sitting on somebody's porch where (well, looky here!) someone left an old guitar and a dog-earred songbook just lying around. This time, however, the affable Jackson sang more than merely "Don't Rock the Jukebox" and "Gone Country." He dipped into a repertoire of fine reruns, performing a bouncy, bluegrass version of the harmonious standard, "Seven Bridges Road," as well as a kinder, gentler rendition of "The South's Gonna Do It Again."

Some of the funnier moments came when the stagehands added video backdrops to Jackson's show -- for instance, beer bubbles danced on the screens behind his head as he sang "Pop a Top.'

And while these Music City icons entertained as expected, it was Lonestar and Brad Paisley who nearly stole Saturday's show.

Lonestar, playing far more than just their huge hit, "Amazed," roared through a performance that showcased the group's lusty vocals and country-rock sensibilities -- without sacrificing a single, sentimental moment. Indeed, lead vocalist Richie McDonald seemed remarkably focused on his emotions during tunes such as the melancholy "Lonely Grill" and the tender "I'm Already There," the about-to-be-released single off Lonestar's new album. The wistful "Tell Her" was absolutely lovely; meanwhile, "No News" was a raucous, sexy stampede that opened with a hilarious disco riff from "Play That Funky Music White Boy."



While Lonestar turned slightly away from tradition, Paisley looked it square in the face with a set heavy on storytelling -- and we don't mean merely his song selection. The West Virginian furthered his reputation for articulate candor, remarking to the audience that "I'm not listening to Nashville anymore. I'm listening to you." That meant a performance chockablock with hilarious songs full of intelligent lyrics such as "Long
Sermon" and "Me Neither" as well as the lovely numbers, "We Danced" and
"Who Needs Pictures." Paisley's performance also demonstrated that he is,
perhaps, a picker first, fingers flying over his paisley-adorned electric guitar.

The hottest current hitmaker on Saturday's bill, Lee Ann Womack, turned in an interesting program that was often more soulful than her stage mates. Oh, sure, there was womanly finger-wagging in sassy selections such as "You've Got to Talk to Me," "I'll Think of a Reason Later" and her current single, "Ashes by Now." But Womack won the audience more with a swampy, sexy version of "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger" and the groovy naughtiness of the old Muddy Waters blues tune, "I Just Want to Make Love to You."


Womack's gargantuan hit, "I Hope You Dance" got the audience to its feet,
where they happily complied with its title.

Early in the day, Sara Evans showcased her crisp, feminine warble, casually
strolling the stage in a pair of skintight white pants. From the deliberately happy, "Let's Dance," to her next sweet, sassy single, "Saints and Angels," she seem perfectly at ease. The title track from her current album Born to Fly was downright inspirational and included some mighty lush instrumentals.

As usual, western swing stalwarts Asleep at the Wheel opened the day -- too bad this band doesn't get to play for more people during the tour. And outside on the Straitland festival stage, Tampa-raised country rockers the Warren Brothers and retro rockabilly band BR5-49 tore up the joint.

As announced earlier this month, a handful of the stops on this 16-city national tour have been relocated to smaller venues, a move that doesn't bode well for ticket sales to the day-long hootenanny. Nevertheless, Strait would likely be proud to hear what Brett Warren bellowed from the Straitland
stage.

"Hey, anybody who isn't here just doesn't know what they're missing!"
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