By Mark Guarino
Anne Rice, vampires. Jimmy Buffett, margaritas. George Strait, cowboys.
It’s the brand, stupid.
Strait is the pre-eminent ambassador of the Wrangler-wearing, boot-baring, Stetson-topped, big-buckled, straight-shooting, no-nonsense Texas cowboy crooners. Since the early 1980’s, he created an image and sound that led to over 50 number one hits and he remains infallible to this day. He is a singer who neatly curtails his limitations and turns them into assets. By never changing his style, dress or especially themes (most songs are about either Texas or cowboys and sometimes about Texas cowboys), Strait is the most trusted brand in music today.
At the Sears Centre Thursday, he showed why that is. Performed in the round with his 11-member Ace in the Hole band, the show portrayed a performer so at ease with himself, the comfort level was enough to move throngs of people to the stage to snap his picture and, if lucky enough to catch his eye, give a friendly hello.
Yet there were times when that familiarity, stretched to a nearly two-hour limit, began thinning. Despite his everyman swagger, a change would do Strait a world of good.
First the obvious: Strait, 54, is a natural ballad singer, delivering sincerity in spades on ballads like “Somewhere Down in Texas,” “The Chair” and “Run.” His solemn tenor and rigid posture did not leave room for much interpretive flair, and he somehow made cringe-worthy lyrics like “she loved the gringo, my red hair and lingo” (“Seashores of Old Mexico”) sound pleasant enough.
At times, his gentlemanly formalities did not square with what he was singing. “There Stands the Glass,” the Webb Pierce classic, was presented as a light-natured, swing dance, despite its grim lyrics about alcoholism.
Aside from that, how many songs about cowboys missing his Texas home can one man sing before it becomes caricature? These songs stuck to the same palette until they became indistinguishable. He — and particularly his band — only flickered to life on the more challenging material, whipping the antiquated blues standard “Milk Cow Blues” into a dazzling group interaction or using the western swing of “Take Me Back To Tulsa” to get couples dancing in the aisles.
Songs from “It Just Comes Natural” (MCA), his new album, fared better simply because of stronger songs, including the upbeat pop flourish of “Wrapped” and “Give It Away.”
The show started with a sobering look at country music’s past and its future.
Former 1970’s hitmaker Ronnie Milsap left big shoes to fill after an hour-long set of R&B-heavy hits. Singing in a voice still robust, Milsap, 63, rotated between three sets of keyboards in a rush to get all of his hits in before he was finished.
Opening the show was Taylor Swift, a gregarious, blonde, leggy teenage singer who titled her hit single (“Tim McGraw”) after someone very famous, a market-savvy trait typical of the “American Idol” generation.