All artists, whether they hail from the world of country music or not, should be lucky enough to be in on the sort of retirement party George Strait threw for himself Saturday night at Rupp Arena.
With hitmaker Martina McBride along to share the bill, the veteran Texas singer brought together three decades of plain-speaking and traditionally minded hits, and he served them with precious little fuss but plenty of conversational charm. The 10 members of his Ace in the Hole Band — an ensemble of splendid Lone Star craftsmen — were congenial, understated accompanists.
There were no special effects, hi-tech high jinks or rock-star trappings that have become standard issue with most country shows at Rupp. Strait, as he has throughout his career, played things straight.
And then there was the crowd. Nearly 22,000 turned out to see what was billed as the singer's final Lexington concert. The performance was one of the initial stops on Strait's two-year The Cowboy Rides Away farewell tour.
The crowd alone made the show quite a career victory lap. Performing in an in-the-round setting, as he did for his last two Rupp outings, Strait rotated to each corner of the stage, singing two songs each time. That rewarded him with a hero's welcome every time he returned to each section. Such a format also gave the crowd a chance to engage in some hearty vocal one-upmanship.
But the songs took the lead in this presentation — songs rooted in Lone Star tradition but aged with plenty of mainstream accessibility. There were instances when the Texas inspirations were emphasized, as in the twin-fiddle charge of A Fire I Can't Put Out and the dance hall appeal in the honky-tonk charmer 80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper. Similarly, tradition took precedence when Strait invited McBride aboard to re-create a pair of classic country duets — the Johnny Cash/June Carter staple Jackson and the comparatively stoic George Jones/Tammy Wynette lovefest Golden Ring.
Mostly, though, Strait's set was dominated by ultra-relaxed mid-tempo favorites such as Ocean Front Property and the show-opening Here for a Good Time that added to the performance's unhurried feel. Many of these tunes have worn especially well over the decades. Case in point: Amarillo by Morning, a country affirmation from the early 1980s that was played as the show headed into the home stretch. The song's blend of Strait's casual, smoky tenor and the regal fiddle colors of Gene Elders typified the solemn but soulful cast in the program's repertoire.
McBride, a far more presentational singer, opened the evening with a generous 75-minute set that used traditional country as only one of her stylistic bases of operation.
Wild Angels was one of several tunes fortified by anthemic pop, Blessed possessed an electric drive that recalled early-'80s Journey and, in the set's biggest stylistic stretch, Whatcha Gonna Do suggested '70s-style pop-soul.
The material paled next to McBride's vocal prowess, however. In lesser hands, a song like Anyway would have come off as a weighty anthem. But McBride made the tune sound immediate and emotive without overplaying her vocal hand. The set-closing Independence Day, a feat of vocal acrobatics that thrilled despite a somewhat hurried performance, was equally potent. Both songs were indicative of a singer thoroughly confident in traveling down whatever country or pop pathway her music takes her.