The King of Country took on the role of “The King of Broken Hearts” Saturday night, bidding an emotional and engaging farewell to Oklahoma City.
George Strait embarked on his “The Cowboy Rides Away Tour” Friday night with a home-state show in Lubbock, Texas. The second stop on his 2013-14 farewell trek was the sold-out Chesapeake Energy Arena, where he has reigned as a top concert draw since the venue opened in 2002.
As usual, Strait put on a frills-free show designed to spotlight outstanding singing, songwriting and musicianship. He and his excellent opening act, Martina McBride, along with their strong respective bands, performed in the round on a massive diamond-shaped stage in the center of the arena floor. Employing just a few light effects and video screens primarily used to show the performers, the concert was a far cry from the high-tech spectacles favored by many contemporary country acts.
With their long, platinum-gilded careers, Strait and McBride could have made their sets veritable hit parades. Instead, the veteran vocalists mixed in playful covers and deep album cuts with the expected fan favorites.
McBride opened her 70-minute crowd-warming set with the feisty toe-tapper “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues” and kept the proceedings sassy with “Wild Angels,” “My Baby Loves Me,” “This One’s for the Girls” and her recent top 20 single “Teenage Daughters.”
“I’m the luckiest girl in the world ‘cause I get to tour with George frickin’ Strait,” declared McBride, who looked sassy in a red leather jacket over black jeans, a black scooped-neck top and tall black boots with skinny skyscraper heels.
The Kansas native told the packed house that one of her favorite parts of planning a tour is choosing cover songs, and she wowed the crowd with her crystalline country version of Etta James’ “At Last” and got fans wailing along with a medley of the Cat Stevens classic “The First Cut Is the Deepest” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
“We’re not clapping; we’re snapping. It’s the new thing. All the cool kids are doing it,” she quipped before launching into a lively rendition of “King of the Road,” paying double tribute to her tourmate and the late, great Erick-bred singer-songwriter Roger Miller.
She even broke out a harmonica for her bluesy ballad “Love’s the Only House.” But the songstress was at her best belting soaring love songs and heartbreaking anthems like “Whatever You Say,” “A Broken Wing,” “Concrete Angel” “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” and her big finish “Independence Day,” which not only highlighted her big voice but her skill at delving into the emotion of each song.
The night only got more emotional as Strait and his Ace in the Hole Band took the stage following a pair of video tributes, one featuring country superstars like Reba McEntire, Blake Shelton and Alan Jackson wishing King George well on his farewell tour and another highlighting his myriad career accomplishments.
The Country Music Hall of Famer, 60, got his final Oklahoma City show off to a spirited start with the title track of his 2011 album “Here for a Good Time” and the title cut from his 1987 record “Ocean Front Property,” setting the tone for his career-spanning two-hour-plus set.
“Hello, Oklahoma City. It’s so good to be here tonight,” Strait greeted the crowd, who showered him with deafening praise for virtually every song. “Probably my last one here and that’s sad because I’m gonna miss you. Thank you for coming and thank you for coming all those years, too.”
There’s a curious formality to a George Strait concert. After he straps on his black acoustic guitar, the superstar performs two songs at one point of the diamond-shaped stage before methodically moving on to the next point and two more songs. Fans in each quadrant inevitably get to their feet as the king moves to their point on the stage.
On his first turn around, Strait offered a mix of hits and cuts from the latter half of his three-decade career: “Check Yes or No,” “ I Saw God Today,” “A Showman’s Life,” “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright” and “Drinkin’ Man,” which he proudly announced he co-wrote with his song Bubba and longtime collaborator Dean Dillon. He quickly proved he still has the worn-leather rich voice and potent country charisma to hold an audience in his thrall.
The Academy of Country Music Artist of the Decade didn't have to switch up his tried-and-true show format, but he did it anyway on his second rotation around the stage. At each point of the diamond, he pulled up a stool and regaled his fervent fans with tales of his early days recording in Nashville, punctuated with deep album cuts like “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper” and "Honky Tonk Crazy" and classic hits like the gorgeous heartbreaker "Marina del Rey.”
“That brings back some pretty good memories,” said Strait, who was dressed in a pale checked button-down shirt and his usual cowboy boots, black hat and tight Wrangler jeans. “Y’all like those old songs? Me, too.”
He smiled widely and wistfully has he reminisced about his 1980s beginnings, recalling songwriters he worked with and his early plans to incorporate his last name into all his album titles until “luckily I wised up.”
“We’re moving into the ‘90s and old Dusty,” Strait said as he pulled up his stool for the final time to play “The King of Broken Hearts” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” from his 1992 film “Pure Country.”
The Texas troubadour left the stool behind for his next trip around the stage, which ironically started with his 1985 smash “The Chair,” a favorite that got the whole crowd wailing along and ended in a standing ovation.
“Thank you so much. What a great crowd you are. I’m really, really gonna miss that,” Strait said.
The superstar graciously shared the stage with retired Gen. Leroy Sisco of the Military Warriors Support Foundation, who invited Strait to present an Iraq War veteran and his wife with the ceremonial key to their new house as part of the Homes 4 Wounded Heroes program. Naturally, King George followed up the presentation with the lively “Give It Away.”
Through old favorites like “Amarillo by Morning” to his newest single from his forthcoming album “Give It All We Got Tonight,” from the peppy dance number “Stars on the Water” to the lovely piano ballad “Living for the Night,” Strait seemed determined to savor every moment and emotion. Emotion almost seemed to overwhelm him on the all-too-appropriate recent tracks “Troubadour” and “I’ll Always Remember You.”
“I really wasn’t thinking about retiring or slowing down. I don’t know, maybe it was in the back of mind,” Strait said during the latter, which seemed to bring tears to his eyes. “I just wanted to say how much you guys have meant to me over the years. So I figured the best way to do that was in a song.”
In keeping with tradition, Strait closed his set with his first hit, 1981’s “Unwound.” Although he and his Ace in the Hole Band didn’t leave the stage for long, the crowd welcomed them back for the encore with ear-splitting screams of joy.
“Thank you very much. Yes, we’ll play on,” Strait said, grinning as he strapped his guitar back on and launched into the party-time love song “Same Kind of Crazy,” followed by the hilarious hit “All Exes Live in Texas.”
He gave his Ace in the Hole Band, which started in 1975 and has backed Strait throughout his career, a prime showcase with a raucous extended cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which got the superstar grinning as broadly as his dancing devotees.
Alas, nothing lasts forever, and many fans groaned when they heard the opening of Strait’s customary closer, “The Cowboy Rides Away.” Folks were singing and swaying, waving their arms and holding up their lighted cell phones.
When the ballad was over, Strait gave a big sigh as he made one last circle around the stage. The emotion was obvious in his face as he waved and pointed to the fans, bowed and patted his heart.
“Good night, everybody. Thank you,” he said, spreading his arms wide and basking in one more collective cheer.
And then he was gone, striding off the stage and proving the lyric true: “The last goodbye’s the hardest one to say.”
Still, it was a great ride, King George.