OK, so the cowboy didn’t quite ride away after all.
Four years and change after the Austin date of his 2014 farewell tour, George Strait was back in the saddle again at the Erwin Center on Sunday night, helping the city’s biggest indoor concert venue celebrate its 40th anniversary. He’s not on tour, exactly, though he did play two shows in Tulsa this weekend, and a festival in New Orleans the weekend before. That follows about a dozen Las Vegas dates he’s done over the past year or so.
If that makes his 2014 “The Cowboy Rides Away” tour seem a little less climactic than it did at the time, you won’t find his Austin fans complaining. Sunday’s show had been sold out for months, and the Strait faithful voiced their approval with thunderous applause for the 66-year-old country icon, singing along to many songs throughout his two-hour show.
One reason Strait’s semi-return to live performing is welcome, even if it’s just an occasional thing, is that the guy has far too many hits to fit into a single show. Signature tunes such as “Amarillo By Morning” and “All My Exes Live in Texas” will always be there, of course, but it’s rather impressive that nearly 50 percent Sunday’s concert featured songs he didn’t play when he was here in 2014.
That was partly to accommodate new songs, such as the title track to his 2015 album “Cold Beer Conversation” and a recent co-write with Jamey Johnson titled “Kicked Outta Country” calling out mainstream country radio for constantly leaving its living legends behind. He also paid tribute a departed legend, playing the late Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and “Are the Good Times Really Over.” (Haggard was still with us when Strait last played the Erwin Center.)
But a lot of the differences from 2014 simply testified to the vastness of Strait’s repertoire. “Write This Down,” a 1999 chart-topper he skipped last time, was strong enough to open the show and had much of the crowd singing along from the start. Better still was “Wrapped,” a favorite with Austin audiences because its writer, Bruce Robison, lives here (and Robison’s wife, country singer Kelly Willis, has recorded the song too).
Performing, as he typically does, on a diamond-shaped stage in the middle of the Erwin Center’s floor, Strait made the rounds about a half-dozen times across two hours, playing one or two songs from each corner before sauntering on to the next one. It’s a brilliant strategy for energizing the crowd, as each corner wants to be the one cheering the loudest for him. At times, the roars reached decibel levels commonly associated with rock heroes such as Springsteen or even the Beatles. That’s how much Strait means to his fans.
His 11-member Ace in the Hole Band, which includes Austinites Gene Elders on fiddle and Terry Hale on bass, remains one of the finest backing ensembles in any genre. Getting good sound in an arena environment can be a challenge, but Strait and his crew made it seem like old hat. Instruments meshed harmoniously, solos stood out when called for, and the focus always remained squarely on Strait’s still-strong vocal delivery.
One aspect of Sunday’s concert was a welcome upgrade from 2014. Nashville faux-country star Jason Aldean opened that show, but this time we got a perfect hometown touch with western swing masters Asleep at the Wheel. Leader Ray Benson alluded to a night 40 years ago when a young Strait opened for the Wheel at Gruene Hall; thus began a friendship that allowed for such special moments as Strait playing Benson’s 65th birthday party during South By Southwest two years ago.
RELATED: Our 2014 interview with Ray Benson
When you see the Wheel, you know you’re going to get “Miles and Miles of Texas,” “Route 66” and Bob Wills standards that always sound good in the eight-piece band’s hands. But the revelations come when the group turns to more adventurous songwriters. On Sunday, that meant some refreshingly inventive guitar work from Benson on Guy Clark’s memorable “Dublin Blues,” with its home-cooked line about drinking margaritas at the Chili Parlor Bar (just a few blocks west of the Erwin Center). Benson mentioned the song will be on a new Wheel album due out in September.
George Strait set list:
1. Write This Down
2. Ocean Front Property
3. Cold Beer Conversation
5. Baby Blue
7. She’ll Leave You With a Smile
8. Old Violin
9. Kicked Outta Country
10. I Cross My Heart
11. Arkansas Dave
12. The Man in Love With You
13. Check Yes or No
14. Sing Me Back Home
15. Are the Good Times Really Over
16. Here For a Good Time
17. Take Me to Texas
18. Give It All We Got Tonight
19. Give It Away
20. You Look So Good in Love
21. It Just Comes Natural
22. I Can Still Make Cheyenne
23. Amarillo By Morning
24. The Chair
27. The Fireman
28. All My Exes Live in Texas
29. I Saw God Today
30. The Cowboy Rides Away