George Strait, Reba McEntire and Lee Ann Womack gave Nashville fans their money's worth Saturday night (Sept. 11) at Bridgestone Arena. The show lasted more than four and a-half hours, included a total of 59 songs and featured surprise appearances by Ronnie Dunn (late of Brooks & Dunn) and actress-comedian Melissa Peterman.
Unlike most superstar country packages these days, this show was comparatively low-tech. All three performers worked from the same square stage set in the center of the arena floor. Each act walked down an aisle through the crowd to reach the stage. The only adornments were the giant video screens above the stage and a few flashing lights.
While it was not a sell-out crowd, it was certainly a demonstrative one, particularly the hardcore contingent seated on the floor. There fans seemed determined to stand, wave and scream until their idols made eye contact with them.
At 58, Strait is still the essence of cool. Wearing the usual black hat, off-white shirt and form-fitting jeans, he loped into the arena and onto the stage as casually as a high school senior strolling to class -- all while the audience jumped and thundered. As he strapped on his guitar, he looked up and grinned broadly like a man recognizing he was in complete control. Which, of course, he was.
McEntire was country showbiz at its best, bigger than life and down-home intimate at the same time. Clad in tight black pants and a sparkling, long-sleeve black top, the unsinkable redhead roamed the perimeter of the stage with her hand-held microphone, flashing that high-wattage smile and pumping out hit after hit as if seeking non-believers to convert.
Womack, who also dressed in black shirt and pants, relied on her astounding voice and a sheaf of familiar tunes to carry her through her half-hour opening slot.
Strait got the communal juices flowing with "Twang" before rolling the clock back to "Ocean Front Property," "Honk if You're Honky Tonk" and "I Can Still Make Cheyenne." His set list was an emotionally engaging mixture of the upbeat and the somber: "I Hate Everything" and "Run" leavened with "Seashores of Old Mexico" and "Check Yes or No."
He paid tribute to his home state with the virtue-enumerating "If It Wasn't for Texas" as Lone Star icons flashed on the TV screens overhead. "This song is kind of special to me because it was written by my son," he said, as he introduced the folkish "Arkansas Dave."
Strait tapped into his female zealots with "How 'Bout Them Cowgirls," a rhetorical question that set the arena rocking. Then it was on to the more contemplative "The Breath You Take."
Before he waved goodbye in what appeared to be his exit for the evening, he had rolled through such cherished fare as "Amarillo by Morning," "The Chair," "The Fireman," "Unwound," "Give It Away," "I Saw God Today," "Troubadour" and dozens of others.
He appeared to take his leave with "Unwound," walking and waving all the way around the stage while stopping now and again to touch a hand or drink in the applause. But the crowd cheered for minutes afterward, insisting that he come back.
For his encore, he did "High Tone Woman," "All My Ex's Live in Texas," a very credible version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" (right down to the opening moan) and "The Cowboy Rides Away." This time, he rode away for good, as the clock read 11:35 p.m.
Earlier in the evening, McEntire bounced onto the boards with "Can't Even Get the Blues" as the swaying crowd looked anything but bluesy. "We're gonna take a little [musical] tour tonight," she promised. "The most important thing is for you to have a great time."
No problem there, thanks to a barrage of such hits as "The Fear of Being Alone," "Strange," "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" and her new single, "Turn On the Radio."
Listening to her delve into the emotional complexity of "Falling Out of Love," "Somebody Should Leave" and "For My Broken Heart" reminded fans that McEntire isn't just a great country belter of songs but also one of pop music's most sensitive vocal stylists. She demonstrated this point again when she seated herself on a stool, spoke of her father's difficulty in expressing love and sang "The Greatest Man I Never Knew."
Womack returned to the stage to assist McEntire in the operatic cat fight, "Does He Love You." After taunting each other from opposite sides, the two women embraced at the finale. "Well, that was fun," said McEntire.
While she was singing "I Want a Cowboy," pictures of cowboys real and cinematic flashed on the video screen -- Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Garth Brooks and, at the end, George Strait, an arrangement that squeezed out more cheering.
McEntire praised the recently disbanded Brooks & Dunn, noting that she had toured with the duo for four years. "I love them to pieces," she declared. Then she sang "I Keep on Loving You," a Ronnie Dunn-Terry McBride co-write.
A few songs later, Dunn strode from the wings to rapturous applause to duet with McEntire on another of his compositions with McBride, "Cowgirls Don't Cry."
When McEntire stopped to reminisce with the crowd about her journey from country music to Broadway to the Reba TV series, Melissa Peterman -- who played ditsy Barbara Jean in the series and now presides over CMT's The Singing Bee -- tsunamied onto the stage, waving a beer and exuding a menacing level of good fellowship. That she was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt with a picture of George Strait on it and fringes at the bottom did nothing to soften her impact.
Towering and talking over McEntire, Peterman took time out to flirt with fiddler Jimmy Mattingly. Always the helpful critic, she warned McEntire against her tendency to "milk things" when she sings.
Then, taking her fingers, she manipulated Strait's mouth on her T-shirt, intoning, "Reba, this is George Strait, and I know how to rock my Wranglers." But she stayed mostly still as McEntire sang the show's theme song, "I'm a Survivor."
McEntire capped her segment with "Is There Life Out There." Not surprisingly, the crowd demanded more. She came back down the aisle in the miniature yellow cab she has long used in her shows when she sings "Fancy." (It is keyed to her original "Fancy" video, which begins with her returning to her childhood home in a taxi.)
She emerged from the cab in a shimmering red knee-length gown and red high heels to sing the story of the girl who uses her body and wits to escape poverty. It was the only song in McEntire's encore.
Womack opened the show promptly at 7 p.m. with "San Antonio Rose." From there, it was on to "Last Call," "I'll Think of a Reason Later" and "A Little Past Little Rock." Not surprisingly, she earned the loudest applause for "I Hope You Dance," her megahit and Grammy-winner from 2000 that topped the charts for five weeks. She bowed out with the durable "Ashes by Now."