The Prudential Center’s massive exterior LED screen announced “George Strait: Sold Out.” And the streets of Newark, N.J., have likely never seen so many cowboy hats, most pulled low against the cold March winds, as urban cowboys held their cowgirls close Saturday night and headed toward the arena on Saturday night (March 1).
This is an “historic night,” declared opening act Martina McBride. In the nation’s largest metropolitan area, where country music is enjoying a resurgence, Strait had arrived for his swan song. A recording artist for three decades, and a touring veteran for longer, Strait holds the record for the most No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. And this was the New York regional stop on The Cowboy Rides Away Tour, a two-year swing that Strait says will be his last tour, although he’ll likely still perform live for one-off events.
McBride, who later would have a guest star turn during Strait’s performance, charmed the audience during her opening set. While the dearth of solo women stars success has drawn attention lately, McBride has a 20-year-long, hit-making track record on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
McBride won over the still-arriving crowd with her hits, like the wry and weary “Teenage Daughters,” the long view of “This One’s For The Girls,” and the grown-up tale of devotion “I’m Gonna Love You Through It.” And she previewed her forthcoming “Everlasting” album, a collection of iconic soul and R&B tracks produced by Don Was, by singing a killer cover of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”
This was McBride’s last night on this leg of Strait’s tour. But she is due to join an all-star bill — along with Jason Alden, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack and Asleep At The Wheel — when Strait plays his final date of The Cowboy Rides Away Tour on June 7 at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, outside Dallas.
Strait tours arenas with a center stage. So he and his Ace In The Hole Band emerged Saturday night across a floor passage with fans crammed along the crowd barricades, their smartphone cameras flashing. From the heels of his boots to the brim of his black Resistol cowboy hat, Strait looked every inch the rodeo rider he’s long been – albeit one with an irresistible, thousand-watt smile.
“The Fireman” opened the show with its characteristically sly lyric (“Making my rounds all over town, putting out old flames”) and a hot Western swing attack. The stage set-up contributed to the show’s sense of intimacy. A fan in front-row seat clasped her hands as if in prayer, gazing up at Strait, as he segued into the childhood love story of “Check Yes or No,” then into the chart-topping sing-along of “Ocean Front Property,” followed by the gentle piano waves of “Marina Del Rey.”
Strait turned musical moods at ease, as if guiding a favorite horse on a tricky trail. Accompanying him expertly is the 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band: Mike Daily on pedal steel guitar; Gene Elders on lead fiddle; Benny McArthur on fiddle and electric guitar; Rick McRae on lead guitar and fiddle; Ronnie Huckaby on keyboards; John Michael Whitby on keyboards and guitar; Joe Manuel on acoustic guitar; Terry Hale on bass; Mike Kennedy on drums; and backing vocalists Thom Flora and Marty Slayton adding harmonies.
Strait’s longtime promoter, Louis Messina, president/CEO of TMG/AEG Live, commented backstage about the wide age range of fans that have made this tour a sell out. While many at Saturday’s show clearly have been following Strait for decades, fans in their teens and 20s helped fill the hall. One row of teen-aged boys sang along with Strait’s hits old and new.
No doubt, the enthusiasm of younger fans has been fueled by the arrival in New York last year of Nash FM as the country-format flagship of Cumus Media, which had a promotional presence at Strait’s show.
And Strait’s set list did span the years. The jaunty “Blame It On Mexico” goes all the back to his 1981 debut album “Strait Country.” And his latest upbeat hit “I Got A Car,” from his latest MCA Nashville album “Love Is Everything,” deserved its place among the classic gems of Saturday’s show. Strait’s favorite songwriters make poetry from the place names of his native Texas, from “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” to “Amarillo By Morning.” And fans who know every lyric of Strait’s hits are privy to some of the finest love stories, bar tales and word-play in country music.
Midway through the show, Strait announced a surprise, calling out “Mar-teen-ah!” McBride returned to the stage for two dynamic duets with Strait. First, they sang “Jackson,” memorably recorded in 1967 both by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra as a pop single, then by June and Johnny Cash as a country hit. Then Strait and McBride took on “Golden Ring,” a 1976 chart-topper from then-reigning king and queen of country, George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Strait currently reigns as the CMA Entertainer of the Year, winning the honor last November for the third time in 23 years. That was not a sentimental vote. Strait’s ability to move his audiences remains undeniable, even on this final tour. No doubt, his talent lies first in an unerring skill at picking remarkable songs from among the finest writers in Nashville and beyond. But beyond his song choices and his amazing band, Strait on Saturday showed compelling stage presence and vocal power.
There are few other great American vocalists in any genre -- the late Frank Sinatra comes to mind -- who can convey intense emotion with such effortlessness and understatement as George Strait.
Strait’s impending departure from the live touring circuit came into focus with four songs toward the close of his core set. “I’ll Always Remember You” brought a brief monologue from the singer who recalled that, when his career began, he thought he’d be around for “maybe” five years. “When I walk off this stage for the last time,” he told the crowd, “I’ll always remember you.”
“Give It All We Got Tonight” continued the reflective mood. Then “Troubadour” brought an appropriate lyric: “I was a young troubadour / when I wrote [CQ] in on a song / And I’ll be an old troubadour /when I’m gone.”
“Unwound” offered the honky-tonk romp of a singer whose woman has thrown him out of the house.
An encore brought more surprises as Strait and the band tore into “You Wreck Me,” from Tom Petty. Next up, with its humor as fresh as ever, came “All My Ex’s Live In Texas” (“and that’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee”), followed by the traveling love song called “Run.” Another great cover brought the show to a peak as Strait took on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” And then Strait said goodbye, aptly, with “The Cowboy Rides Away.” The house lights came up as, figuratively speaking at least, the sun went down on the plains of Texas.
Here is George Strait's Newark Set List:
1. The Fireman
2. Check Yes or No
3. Ocean Front Property
4. Marina Del Rey
5. Blame It On Mexico
6. A Fire I Can’t Put Out
7. Nobody In Her Right Mind Would’ve Left Her
8. Here For A Good Time
9. Arkansas Dave
10. Jackson (with Martina McBride)
11. Golden Ring (with Martina McBride)
12. River Of Love
13. You Look So Good In Love
14. How `Bout Them Cowgirls
15. I Saw God Today
16. I Can Still Make Cheyenne
17. Drinkin’ Man
18. That’s What Breaking Hearts Do
19. I Believe
20. Give It Away
21. Lead On
22. Amarillo By Morning
23. The Chair
24. I Got A Car
25. I’ll Always Remember You
26. Give It All We Got Tonight
29. Folsom Prison Blues
30. The Cowboy Rides Away