George Strait goes out on top with Cowboy Rides Away tour
 
By Jason P. Woodbury Special for the Republic | azcentral.com
 
A two-hour, 33-song set makes for a lot of show, but when you’ve got 60 No. 1 hits to your name, it barely qualifies as a “greatest hits set.”
Such was the case with George Strait’s Friday night appearance at US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix. The reining “King of Country” is a year into his “Cowboy Rides Away Tour,” and if the concerts are indeed his last (however unlikely that is in showbiz), Strait made it clear that he’s going out on top. His Phoenix performance was an embarrassment of riches.
The crowd, the absolute loudest crowd I’ve ever heard, couldn’t have asked for more. Strait is a rare kind of superstar, one whose command over the crowd isn’t rooted in bombastic theatrics or flashy pyrotechnics. No, Strait’s presentation is understated, classy, and sly, and his songs — be they neo-traditionalist songs that place Strait alongside Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett, Patty Loveless and Alan Jackson, or tight, pop-focused ones that dominate modern country radio — match Strait’s steady charisma.
Sporting a signature Resistol black-felt cowboy hat and Wranglers, Strait took the stage as his 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band warmed up. The crowd cheered as he led the band into “The Fireman,” from 1984’s “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind.” The screens flashed images of blazing fires; the closest Strait ever got to the flashy pyrotechnics that recall that other ’80s King of Country, Garth Brooks.
“Thank you Arizona,” Strait said, noting that he opened US Airways Center in 1992, back when it was called America West Arena. “What a special night that was, and what a special night this is,” he continued as the backing band queued up his “Arizona” song, “Ocean Front Property in Arizona.”
Strait smirked as he sipped from a cup before playing a song from his early years, “Marina Del Rey,” penned by his friend and collaborator Frank Dycus
“People always ask me what it is in that red solo cup,” he smiled, taking a beat. “I say, that’s my secret.”
Strait covered all four corners of the stage, making sure that the crowd got a good view. He’s a subtle performer, and the classic sense of regret and longing he brings to songs like “You Look So Good in Love,” “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Here,” and “A Fire I Can’t Put Out” is tempered by soft humor and wit.
Martina McBride, whose opening set showed off her incredible voice and songs from her upcoming classic soul-influenced album, “Everlasting,” joined Strait for two of the night’s best songs: “Jackson,” which found McBride and Strait incorporating a little of both the Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra version and June Carter and Johnny Cash’s, and “Wedding Ring,” where the two effortlessly evoked Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
Following a string of hits including “I Saw God Today” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” from 1996’s “Blue Clear Sky,” Strait invited retired general Leroy Sisco of the Military Warriors Support Foundation up to honor Purple Heart recipient Otto Malone. The foundation has been joining Strait on this tour, and Sisco informed Malone that he and his wife Tara were the new owners of a house in Tucson. The crowd chanted “U.S.A.” and Strait stoked that fire for a minute before returning with “Give It Away.”
From there, it was a rush to the finish line, and the crowd cheered as Strait delivered classics such classics as “Amarillo By Morning” and “Fool Hearted Memory,” as well as a newer song, “I Got a Car,” a modern retelling of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” its B-movie romance spruced up for the CMT set. Finishing his set proper with “Unwound,” Strait promised, “See you down the road somewhere,” before returning for an encore of “Same Kind of Crazy,” “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” and an intricate western swing take on “Folsom River Blues” (which even made room for a jazzy, Buddy Rich-style drum solo). Strait closed with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” one of his first singles, taking on a bittersweet tone in light of his retirement.
Then again, Strait probably isn’t going anywhere for good. And when he comes riding back into the frame, chances are pretty solid that a Phoenix crowd will be there roaring, just like they were at America West Arena, US Airways Center, and whatever they’ll name the place next.