HOUSTON -- Everything's bigger in Texas, as they say, but can you live any larger than hearing George Strait sing at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo?
Around 80,000 fans filled the massive Reliant Stadium on Sunday night (March 17) for Strait's latest stop on the Cowboy Rides Away tour. Still it felt like a honky-tonk inside because Strait dug deep into his traditional country catalog, occasionally offering songs that haven't been in heavy rotation since the 1980s. For a solid two hours, he casually chatted about his career and sang almost everything you'd expect.
And somehow it went by really fast.
In this rare instance, the floor of the stadium was populated with seats, which isn't the case when a performance immediately follows a rodeo. A wide path from the back of the venue was created between two rows to make way for the King's procession to the stage. It really is a sight to see him march in with his court of handlers, beaming and waving to the crowd.
Although it was St. Patrick's Day, Strait was dressed in a simple blue plaid shirt, blue jeans, a shiny belt buckle and cowboy boots. However, it was the fans that probably needed a pinch to make sure this whole idea of a farewell tour isn't a dream.
Before his set began, the screens hanging from the roof showed footage of Strait appearing at the Houston Rodeo through the last 30 years. It's remarkable how he has hardly aged, both in his looks and his approach to entertaining.
Strait is famous for singing in-the-round, where the stage is set up in the middle of the floor and he walks from edge to edge after every other song or so. This time, he employed what he called a "lazy man's stage," which did the rotating for him. As a result, everybody got some face time with him.
"It seems like yesterday when I was at the Astrodome singing at the rodeo for the first time," he said fondly, after singing the classic "Ocean Front Property," the second song in his set. "Lucky for me, Eddie Rabbitt got sick," he added with a smile.
Strait said that the crowd could expect "old stuff, new stuff and surprises." And he was right.
During one segment, he talked about his first trip to Nashville in 1978, singing demos for his friend Darryl Staedler. He talked about hearing the demo for "Marina Del Rey" after a show at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth, when songwriter Frank Dycus played him a cassette tape. He also said he'd better stand up when singing a few songs from the film Pure Country because that's what his character Dusty would have done.
For a while there, it seemed like somebody put the 1995 box set Strait Out of the Box into the CD player and hit the random button: "Blame It on Mexico," "Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart," "80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper," "You'll Always Be a Fire I Can't Put Out," "The King of Broken Hearts" and "Where the Sidewalk Ends" all got a moment in the spotlight.
From there, he jumped into "River of Love," "How 'Bout Them Cowgirls" and "Give It Away," taking a short break to help give away a new home to an injured soldier, courtesy of the Military Warriors organization.
After a well-chosen cover of "Middle Age Crazy," a Top 10 country hit for Jerry Lee Lewis in 1977, Strait eased into one of his most famous songs, "Amarillo by Morning." And when he sang about the cowboy whose saddle was taken in Houston, the crowd erupted.
For some longtime fans, that was the highlight of the show. For others, it might have been the chance to sing along with "Unwound," "The Chair" or "All My Exes Live in Texas." Maybe it was when Martina McBride, grinning ear-to-ear, returned to the stage after an opening set to sing two classic country duets. Or maybe it was having the opportunity to hear a brand new Strait single, "Give It All We Got Tonight."
For me, it would be watching him perform "I'll Always Remember You" and "Troubadour" back to back and realizing that he's acknowledging the end of an era. After next year, he'll be done touring after more than 30 years on the road. I've seen him play at least seven times now, and this was my favorite show yet.
On this night, crowds were treated to a brief opening set by the Randy Rogers Band, a huge draw in Texas, as well as a longer set by McBride, who's appearing on all dates. As always, McBride's big voice brought down the house on "A Broken Wing" and "Independence Day." And she surprised the audience by wailing on the harmonica on "Love's the Only House." Her positive stage energy certainly helped get the crowd ready for a historic night.
Luckily though, Houston isn't where the cowboy rides away. So rather than a sad farewell, this St. Patrick's Day set left fans feeling lucky to once again be in the presence of the King.