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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Strait caravan rolls into Houston

Rice University Stadium, Houston, TX. April 17, 1999

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - Last year George Strait's festival tour was one of the most popular concert tours in all genres of music, and this year he's at it again, as he and six other acts perform in 18 stadiums across the country.

In the parking lot at Rice Stadium in Houston, the Straitland area opened at 11 a.m. so fans could buy food and souvenirs, pick up a free tobacco sample, play a few carnival games and plaster their bodies with stickers from Houston's three country stations. Chevy representatives gathered a crowd by giving away T-shirts and then got them chanting "Chevy trucks" in a strange commercialistic ritual.

If Straitland was unimpressive and overcommercialized, the music made up for it. For one day, Rice Stadium was transformed into the biggest honky tonk in Texas.

Western swing band vets Asleep at the Wheel has changed members so many times during its 30 years that frontman Ray Benson is the only original member left. The repertoire during AATW's 30 minutes included "Miles and Miles of Texas" and Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose," boogying a little with "Cherokee Boogie," and even rocking out on the hard-driving "Hot Rod Lincoln." Given the band's talent, it's not surprising that they've won six Grammies.

Mark Wills is typical of the new breed of country stars. He has a pleasant but undistinctive voice, and he sings pleasant but undistinctive songs about falling in and out of love. His half-hour live show is boring, mainly because his biggest hit songs, like "I Do" and "Wish You Were Here," have been ballads.

Even the closing song, which is normally an energetic, upbeat song to leave the crowd on a high note, was a ballad, "Don't Laugh at Me." The sound on the upbeat songs, particularly "This Can't Be Love," was muddy because the drums drowned out the music.

After that, the crowd needed an act to pick them up, and Jo Dee Messina did a good job. She opened her 35-minute show with her first two hits, "Heads Carolina, Tails California" and "You're Not in Kansas Anymore," and then unveiled her rocking next single, "Lesson in Leavin'," a remake of the Dottie West song.

Messina then performed "Turn the Beat Around," a recent Gloria Estefan hit, and as she pranced around the stage and played solos on drum sets at either side of the stage, the crowd finally had something to get excited about. In introducing "Stand Beside Me," she told the story of the man who left her after six years together "to find himself." Messina said, "I didn't know he was lost!" When he came back a while later, she would have nothing to do with him. It was the kind of strong-woman story that Reba McEntire likes to tell in her shows, except Messina sounded much more genuine and less rehearsed.

Kenny Chesney, an artist finally beginning to get the recognition he deserves as "How Forever Feels" is in its fifth week at the top of the Billboard country chart. He's got a great country voice, and his songs are heavier on the fiddle and steel than most country pop on today's radio. He can get the crowd singing along with an upbeat song like this show's openers, "She's Got It All" and "Fall in Love," or he can touch hearts with a sensitive ballad like "Me and You."

Judging by the songs he played from his new album, Chesney should have more hits coming. "You Had Me From Hello" is a beautiful piano ballad and will be the next single. "Life Is Good" is just a feel-good song with a great midtempo groove. For some reason, it sounds like something John Anderson might have done, and for a singer of real country music, that's a great compliment.

The Dixie Chicks clearly were trying to make a statement not only with their music but also with their fashion. Lead singer Natalie Maines wore a purple top that buttoned in the back, except she left all but the top button undone to show off her lower back. She wore baggy black pants with slits in the sides up nearly to her hips, and she had way too much purple eye shadow on.

The surprising part about the Chicks is even though they dress to live up to their billing as the country Spice Girls, they're actually talented singers and players, too, as they demonstrated on a fiddle-and-banjo hoedown.

"There's Your Trouble," "I Could Love You Better" and the wistful "Wide Open Spaces" had the crowd singing and dancing along, but the trio shined equally on the ballads. Songs like "Am I the Only One" and "If You Could See Me Now" featured beautiful harmonies.

After closing with "I Could Love You Better," Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel quickly exited the stage while Maines stayed back, running from one side of the stage to the other, blowing kisses every which way and basking in the applause of her fans. She was by far the most energetic of the three, dancing and prancing and banging her head to the music not unlike Alanis Morissette.

Although the Dixie Chicks are certainly bona fide country-music superstars, Tim McGraw was the first act of the day who was not only a headliner-quality star but also had enough hits to fill out an hour-long show.

He started the show with "For a Little While" and "Where the Green Grass Grows," two recent songs that are sweet and nostalgic without being overly sentimental. Then he went back a few years for the hard-driving "All I Want Is a Life."

Surprisingly, for an artist who has generally built his career on fun, upbeat songs, two of the biggest highlights were ballads. "Please Remember Me" is a gorgeous, heart-wrenching song written and originally recorded by Rodney Crowell. As the first song of his encore, McGraw called up wife Faith Hill and sang "It's Your Love," backed only by two acoustic guitars, into a Nokia cellular phone one of the big sponsors of the festival.

McGraw closed the main part with "Indian Outlaw," his first big hit and the song that defined him as a singer of fun party music. He closed his encore with "I Like It, I Love It," cementing that reputation.

Now it was time for the big star of the evening. The stadium lights went out, the fans let out a cheee...and then, as if it wasn't enough that they had been subjected to long streams of commercials all day during the set changes between acts, they had to stand through a full 10 minutes of Chevy and Nokia commercials

Strait opened with "Check Yes or No" and then a couple of songs off the "Pure Country" movie soundtrack, "When Did You Stop Loving Me" and "Heartland." The western-swing song "Take Me Back to Tulsa" featured great twin fiddles, and "Milk Cow Blues" is always a crowd favorite.

The Robert Earl Keen song "Maria" was a nice surprise, as were covers of Conway Twitty's "Linda on My Mind" and Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried."

"Amarillo by Morning" is always a big hit in Texas, and tonight was no exception. At the end of the song, while the fans screamed, all of the lights went off except one, which illuminated the underside of the brim of Strait's cowboy hat, making him look like a ghost or maybe an angel as he stood motionless at the mike.

"I Can Still Make Cheyenne" is another great Strait rodeo song. The fiddle and Strait's singing were absolutely incredible as he told a cowboy's tale of heartache and hope.

Strait was backed throughout by the crack 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band. Instead of getting in each other's way musically and muddying the sound, they actually sounded very good together.

Probably the biggest disappointment for many long-time fans was that Strait relied so heavily on new material. Whereas McGraw had played almost exclusively his hits ("Seniorita Margarita," off his upcoming album, was the one exception), Strait dug deep into his latest album to come up with six songs.

Although "What Do You Say to That" and "That's Where I Want to Take Our Love" are good songs, they don't have the same effect on an audience as classics like "All My Ex's Live in Texas," "Fool Hearted Memory," "Love Without End, Amen," and "Baby Blue."

But everyone has his own favorite Strait song, and to please the entire audience, Strait would have had to play well into the next morning. Still, a few more classics and a few less new songs would have been a good trade.

His last song was "Unwound," his very first hit from way back in 1981. Then he came out for an encore of "True" and "The Cowboy Rides Away," a fitting end to a wonderful night of country music.