George sets us Strait, it’s farewell, not goodbye

In the square at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, George Strait invites Martina McBride to join him.

In the square at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, George Strait invites Martina McBride to join him.

The good news is, George Strait said farewell at the end of his “Cowboy Rides Away” show in Buffalo on Friday night. The cool guy country star did not say goodbye.

This is no time for a complete retirement.

Strait showed the not-quite-sold-out crowd in First Niagara Center that his star power still burns brightly.

Last September, Strait told the world that this tour would be his last. Asked why in an interview with CBS News, Strait said he never wanted his career to get to the point where he shows up to play a gig and nobody else does.

Strait will still record music. He’ll still appear live to play every now and again. But this, Strait has made clear since that day. No more tour buses and regular on-the-road grind.

He indeed is going out on top. For more than three decades, the Strait name has been revered in the country music world, by fans and by those who make the music, too.

He’s had almost 60 songs reach No. 1 on the country charts. That’s five albums worth of music, at least back in the old days on vinyl — the very era in which the Texas native began his career.

Strait’s trick is that there are no tricks. He sings little snippets of life that manage to seem fresh and timeless at the same time. Down-home country voice, check. Supple and rich guitar work, check. Western swing. Honky-tonk stomp. Bar-room weepers. Check, check and check.

On stage in Buffalo, George Strait and the Ace in the Hole Band were priceless. They absolutely swept an adoring crowd off its feet. The in-the-square stage setup was perfect. A diamond sat askew in the middle of the big hockey rink, and Strait owned the space. From song-to-song, Strait called a different corner of the stage his home, so he was singing directly at and as close as possible to the fans on one side of the arena. The band members with non-anchored instruments swung around in the same direction as their leader.

He played for 2 hours, 15 minutes, loving his way through 28 songs in the set proper and another four in the encore. Strait knows a good theme when he sees on. He started with “Here for a Good Time” and closed with “The Cowboy Rides Away.”

In between came songs from every decade of his career, with Strait making sure to mention the men who wrote a lot of those hits songs for him by name.

Every song appeared to be the absolute favorite of one segment of the crowd or another. That wasn’t surprising considering that the age of the Strait fan appeared to range healthily from 16 to 66, all generations having a good time being there in one, big pot bubbling with joy.

My favorites: “A Showman’s Life,” with its magnifying glass held up to the sad parts of a musician on the road; “Amarillo by Morning,” soft, wistful, full of longing; and “The Chair,” sweet and lovely. I got to hear George Strait singing “The Chair” live while holding my wife’s hand. Hell, I can retire from the road now, never mind George.

Other top segments included Strait’s invitation to opener Martina McBride to return to the stage to share the smoking “Jackson” and timeless “Golden Ring.” On that last traditional outlaw cowboy love song, George and Martina did a hot little turn on the piece etched in the songbook of George and Tammy — Jones and Wynette, of course.

(In her set, McBride mentioned how honored she was that Strait asked her to be part of this historic tour. And she delivered a sizzling set befit that of the headline slot on, well, any other country music tour other than this one.)

Strait also thoroughly enjoyed reprising a few songs from his days at Dusty Chandler, the country music icon with a big heart he portrayed in the movie “Pure Country.” “Where the Sidewalk Ends” was cool enough to send fans flocking to the DVD player to watch Dusty one more time. The up-close shots of Strait on the huge video screens also allowed a stark realization. Strait may forever me pictured in my head the way he looked as Dusty. But that came back in 1991. In the 22 years since, Strait has earned some life lines on that big-star face of his.

Why the farewell to draining tours? George Harvey Strait is 60. He’s been a road star since he was in his 20s. He’s got another great reason to say home, too. His son George Harvey Strait — a songwriter that dad made sure to cover on this final tour –has given him another George Harvey Strait “on the grounds,” the legend proudly told the crowd.

May he enjoy every minute, like a man who goes out on his own terms should.

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