There is something comforting about the classic country appeal of George Strait.
The buttery voice. The rugged handsomeness. The songs about topics other than beer.
On Saturday night, the King of Country strolled onstage at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium — the final act of a show that kicked off at 4 p.m. — clapping his hands in his crisp, white shirt and chocolate-colored cowboy hat, the Texas state flag streaming behind him on video screens.
RELATED: Photo gallery from the concert
As his nine-piece band dug into “Write This Down,” Strait, a hint of stubble outlining his Colgate smile, strapped on his black guitar and dove into his No. 1 song from 1999 – the first of many to be played during the concert (he has 45, with another 40-plus hits that cracked the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart).
‘It’s been a long time since we’ve been here,” Strait said, acknowledging the five years since his official retirement tour played what is now known as State Farm Arena. “We’ve got a lot of songs to sing.”
That was not an exaggeration from the durable 66-year-old, who plowed through 32 songs spanning four decades. When you have 30 albums in your catalog – the latest, “Honky Tonk Time Machine,” arrived on Friday – there will be some omissions. But fans could hardly quibble with Strait’s brisk, solid set that spotlighted a few new tunes among his chestnuts.
While the sound wasn’t as crisp as some of last year’s concerts at the stadium (Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran among them) and Strait’s voice was nearly indecipherable when he talked, it didn’t deter fans from hoisting beverages and whooping in appreciation at familiar titles.
More than 50,000 sang along heartily to uptempo numbers (“Here for a Good Time,” “Wrapped”) and ballads (“I Saw God Today,” “You Take Me for Granted”) alike, their energy intact following sets from Chris Stapleton, Chris Janson and Ashley McBryde.
A simple, sleek stage setup – a video screen, some lighting panels, a couple of stools and adept use of the stadium’s “halo board” and the LED strips that run between seating sections – backed Strait and his band. It was the ideal accompaniment for a guy who can command a massive audience merely by tapping his right boot heel during the fiddle-inflected “She’ll Leave You with a Smile” and shimmying slightly behind the mic stand for the sweet “Check Yes or No.”
Strait’s voice, a sturdy instrument, dipped into his lower register on the melancholy “Are the Good Times Really Over” and “Give it Away,” his harmonizing with his two backup singers an aural delight.
The new song, “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” sounded exactly as you’d expect – a happy chorus, sawing fiddle and a boogie-woogie piano touch – with, wisely, the lyrics popping across the video screen. Strait also shared the thoughtful “The Weight of the Badge” - also from “Honky Tonk…” – which he wrote in honor of the police force.
Along with his peerless musical accomplishments, Strait is also regarded for his charity work. The former Army man saluted a young soldier onstage as the Military Warriors Support Foundation presented him with a new home.
Strait zipped back into the show with “Blue Clear Sky,” the sprightly “Codigo” and the double shot of introspection with “God and Country Music” and “Amarillo by Morning.”
With nearly a dozen more songs left – including his timeless “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me” – Strait still looked fresh and eager, his collection of easy-swinging toe-tappers elating another immense crowd.
A few hours earlier, Stapleton, in his usual understated way, slipped onstage with two band members, picked up a guitar and grinded out the raw notes of “Midnight Train to Memphis,” from his Steel Driver days.
With his lap steel guitar player joining the team, Stapleton leaned into the steady thump of “Nobody to Blame,” his whiskey-soaked gravel voice spitting out lyrics as his hands traveled around his Fender guitar.
A gentle bear of a man, Stapleton isn’t prone to inane stage banter, though there was room for this cheeky comment before Kevin Welch’s “Millionaire”: “This song is not a number one song - and you’ll hear a lot of them tonight - but it is a number two!”
Stapleton is seemingly unchanged by his massive success and industry accolades, offering many humble “thank you’s” between songs. He isn’t a scintillating live performer, but a tremendous musician, singer and songwriter – gifts that were spotlighted throughout his 90-minute set.
The crowd, which filled in most of the venue for his performance, shouted along appreciatively with “Might As Well Get Stoned”; but when Stapleton stood alone onstage with his acoustic guitar for a bracing “Whiskey and You,” that became a cue for the audience to talk through it.
From a haunting version of “Was it 26,” written by Don Sampson and recorded by the Charlie Daniels Band in 1989, to a full-band rendition of the poignant “Broken Halos” to his tortured vocal and fiery guitar solo on “I Was Wrong,” Stapleton reaffirmed his position as an authentic country soul.
Even his Stapleton-ified rendition of “Free Bird” – used as an intro to “The Devil Named Music” – was filled with his warm, gruff vocals and refreshingly devoid of pool hall jukebox cheesiness.
But it was, of course, his version of “Tennessee Whiskey” that closed his set with a gut punch of grit.
Prior to Stapleton, the rangy Janson hit the stage, harmonica in one hand and a four-piece band backing him. He bopped through “Redneck Life” grinning proudly and led the crowed in a singalong of “Fix a Drink,” one of those backyard party anthems tailor made for the radio masses.
Janson is the youngest member of the Grand Ole Opry, and he understandably bragged about it while performing behind a replica of its famous mic stand.
His band infused “Who’s Your Farmer” with a rock edge, while Janson showcased his tender side on the romantic sway-along ballad, “Holdin’ Her.”
His abbreviated cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” was another opportunity to spotlight his impressive mouth harp skills, and it was a one-handed blast that ended his hour-long set.
The lone woman on the bill, McBryde, is also the freshly minted new female artist of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards (she will be crowned during the April 7 ceremony on CBS).
The curly-haired country rocker wrapped her brief set with the barnburner “Tired of Being Happy,” an album track from her 2018 debut, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere.” Filled with dueling guitar licks and plenty of attitude, McBryde demonstrated why she’s definitely going somewhere.
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