This review of George Strait’s final Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concert was originally published on CultureMap Houston.
It was 30 years ago that the Texas rancher and country music newcomer received a last-minute call to make his Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo debut, replacing the ill Eddie Rabbitt. Since then, George Strait has become part of the RodeoHouson fabric: He’s played a total of 21 shows, including the Astrodome’s closing concert in 2002 — its highest-attended event — and the Reliant Stadium’s debut concert in 2003.
And Sunday night, he made one last piece of history with a terrific RodeoHouston appearance, a stop on his “The Cowboy Rides Away Tour.” Along with Martina McBride and the Randy Rogers Band, Strait’s concert-only performance amassed a record-breaking crowd of 80,020.
History aside, it’s fitting that Strait chose RodeoHouston for his final Houston tour stop. The annual event, in its 81st year, embodies the same blend of rugged charm and modern energy that’s kept the 60-year-old singer relevant well into the 21st century. Strait’s sold-out concert appeared almost mystical in its generation-bridging force — its ability to elicit the same level of awestruck respect from young and old.
Strait was preceded by two opening acts, the Texas-bred Randy Rogers Band and tour mate Martina McBride. The former’s material was uneven (thumbs down for “Fuzzy,” a honky tonk spin on Jason Aldean’s party anthems), but its newer offerings, like the raucous “Trouble Knows My Name,” were on-point.
McBride proved a force per usual, her crystalline voice searing through her bread and butter of inspirational ballads with precision and poise. Hits like “A Broken Wing” and “Independence Day” carried as much weight as they did 10 years ago, and the under-appreciated “Love’s The Only House” rang with renewed urgency.
But make no mistake: this was Strait’s house, and McBride knew it. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. You know why? Cause I get to tour with George freaking Strait,” she yelled.
If McBride’s set was a polished collection of career highlights, Strait’s felt more like a laidback jam session that just happened to be peppered with No. 1 hits. Wearing
his signature Wranglers and a simple black cowboy hat, Strait burned through a deep, career-spanning set of 31 songs, never once losing the crowd’s attention.
“I can’t tell you how happy we are to be here tonight,” he said while taking in the packed stadium, and that earnest joy quickly became the theme of the night.
He had the crowd on its feet with opener “Here for a Good Time,” a beer-raising ode to living like you’re dying, and he followed it with familiar hits “Ocean Front Property” and “Check Yes or No.” Even when he slowed the pace with a one-two punch of the saccharine “I Saw God Today” and somber “Drinkin’ Man,” the energy in the stadium didn’t seem to waver.
Perhaps because Strait promised upfront that he had a few tricks up his sleeve — and indeed he did. Eight songs in, he brought McBride back out for a pair of classic duets, Johnny and June Cash’s “Jackson” and George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring,” which the duo shuffled through with fresh chemistry. It was a moment, among many in the concert, that transcended the confines of time.
Strait then dove into the meat of his show, a career-tracing journey through story and song. He laughed as he recounted his first trip to Nashville in 1981, cutting his first handful of songs and nabbing his breakthrough record deal. He paid tribute to old friends and writers Darryl Staedtler and Dean Dillon while performing early hits “Blame it on Mexico” and “Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart” from his debut album Strait Country.
“Are y’all still liking the old stuff?” he asked, before continuing through the 80s with songs like “Honky Tonk Crazy” and the jaunty “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper,” which had the audience clapping along.
The first emotional jolt of the night came from Strait’s 1982 hit “Marina del Rey,” a song that, over the years, he’s learned to inject with the melancholy weariness it deserves. The crowd sang along audibly while brave couples took to the floor to dance.
The 90s followed with songs from a “little ole movie called ‘Pure Country,’” including “The King of Broken Hearts” and the fast-paced toe-tapper “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” But just like the decade before, it was the slow two-step of “The Chair” that mesmerized the audience, bringing it to a standing ovation that lasted for a good 20 seconds.
When he barreled through to recent years, “Give it Away” punched things up with country-style angst, and “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” turned into an endearing sing-along. He brought his catalogue full circle with 1983’s “Amarillo by Morning,” a song he re-recorded on his 2003 album For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome, capping it off with a gorgeous fiddle solo.
Throughout the show, Strait gave longtime friends Ace in the Hole plenty of room to shine. The band’s craftsmanship was so sharp that it was able to pump much-needed energy into recent sleeper “Rolling on the River of Love” and tepid chart-climber “Give it All We Got Tonight.” In the context of Strait’s superb catalogue, the latter fell undeniably flat – but again, the crowd couldn’t be bothered.
And what a crowd. One scan of the 80,000 plus-filled stadium was overwhelming, a visual reminder of the kind of scale most artists only dream of reaching.
Strait understood that. “I’m really going to miss this,” he said, as he launched into a sentimental performance of “I’ll Always Remember You” off of his past album, Here for a Good Time. His plain-speak ‘thank you’ to fans was achingly sincere –“But you kept calling me back to the stage / And I finally found my place in each and every face,” he sang — but not particularly unique. The better send-off came with Strait’s honest confession, “Troubadour,” which paints a more telling portrait of his career.
Strait appeared to close the show with his very first hit “Unwound,” but was cheered back in for a four-song encore. He hopped from “Same Kind of Crazy” to the crowd-favorite “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” to a solid, foot-stomping cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, he rode out with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” a potentially cheesy retirement song, but not in his hands.
In an era where singing straight from the heart (pun intended) is heavily sacrificed for bravado and wit, Strait’s presence as a live entertainer — as a cowboy in the least superficial sense of the word —will be simply irreplaceable.
George Strait’s set list:
“Here for a Good Time”
“Ocean Front Property”
“Check Yes or No”
“I Saw God Today”
“Love’s Gonna Make it Alright”
“Blame it on Mexico”
“Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart”
“80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper”
“Honky Tonk Crazy”
“Marina del Rey”
“A Fire I Can’t Put Out”
“The King of Broken Hearts”
“Where the Sidewalk Ends”
“Rolling on the River of Love”
“How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”
“Give it Away”
“Middle Age Crazy”
“Amarillo by Morning”
“Give it All We Got Tonight”
“I’ll Always Remember You”
“Same Kind of Crazy”
“All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
“Folsom Prison Blues”
“The Cowboy Rides Away”