George Strait’s “Strait To Vegas” At the T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Saturday, February 18th, 2017, Reviewed
Around the midway point of George Strait’s exemplary concert Saturday night at the T-Mobile, he honored his superior, Merle Haggard, with a “Mama Tried” so good it seemed to spin on its axis and followed it with two more Haggard songs, “Working Man’s Blues” and “My Life’s Been Grand”. It was a telling tribute because even as it preserved Hag’s memory, it didn’t stand out because everything in the 135 minute set stood out. During the encore, Strait performed “Folsom Prison Blues” -a song that sings itself, and even still, Strait was damn Strait on the song. The fact is simple, whatever the great country song interpreters isn’t, mostly because he has a reputation as a bit of a dick, and doesn’t write much of his own material, what he is is the junior member of a dying breed of country superstars. The most aptly named man in the business, performing the third of what will end up being sixteen sold out shows over twelve months at the 20K seater, is a brilliant singer and performer.
I am not sure where Strait got the reputation as a stuck up, po faced asshole -you know, a Ryan Adams, but this is the second time I’ve seen him, and that ain’t him. Though no George Jones, he has the Jones skill at interpretation and acting out. He is second tier great, a lively, intelligent performer and ambassador of Texas. With his Ace In The Hole band (all Texans as well) he makes Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit look like your High School homecoming band if you lived in Wisconsin.
Strait has been around for 40 years, starting as a callow and handsome cowboy in a ten gallon hat, a neo-tradionionalist kicking back at country pop in the 80s. He has had 61 country hit singles, lost a daughter in a car accident, did a loooong retirement tour culminating in 2014, and was back at it within two years. i caught the retirement gig and was suitably impressed but I wasn’t this impressed. Singing in the round, with a wide grin and supernatural control over his material, he lead his eleven piece band through some of the toughest live country you’ll ever hear. A steady, enormously cheerful disposition, he wiggles a digit on “Wrapped,” pulls out an invisible one on “The Chair,” holds his on the father-son story “The Breath You Take,” and invites opening act Casey Musgraves (who had been pretty excellent in her own opening set) for a dance.
Casey really was a surprise to me, between “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” -the latter of which found her supporting same sexers, I’d taken her for an alt country star, but she is more of a Loretta Lynn type culture truth teller. The 45 minute set went deep into her two albums, stuff like the terrific “Family Is Family” and she played em out very sweetly and, for a last song, nailed “These Boots Are Made For Walking”. Kacey just got engaged so congratulate her! I had planned to catch her Christmas show last year and missed it and kinda plan to catch a full set next time she is in New York.
Strait came out to “Deep In The Heart Of Texas,” and the MCA Recording Artist (if you don’t know why I mention that, think back to the early 80s) and dug for the hits and he didn’t have to look hard to find em. The King Of Country loves a simile and an early “Ocean Front Property” is nearly perfect. He is also a Texan’s Texan and we get the good “Take Me To Texas,” the great “All My Exes Live In Texas” and the showstopper “Amarillo By Morning”. The latter is a stunning ballad and when I say it stopped the show, what I mean is applause quite literally stopped the show. Strait lapped it up, he couldn’t stop smiling. The very next song was to my mind even better, “Troubadour” is a zenith and the “I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone” reads like my epitaph as well: Strait is 64 and he can feel the breath on his neck but he can’t stop.
I don’t mean to sound like an asshole but Strait is a definition of Aristotle’s concept of essence, the what it is of what it is, even Plato’s differential between what things are and the form of what they are: what I’m trying to get at is that Strait is the essence of country music on stage, if you don’t love him you may love many things but you don’t love country. Beyond the concrete of songs, he is the form that country music takes in order for it too be country. Performing in the round, he moves in and out of the center of his band, always at service to what he and Ace in The Hole are doing. “I’m not here for a long time, I’m here for a good time” he sings and that, my friends, is the essence of country. and of everything else.