Whenever you go to see an artist who's on a virtual first-name basis with their audience, like George "George" Strait is, there's bound to be a set of expectations. Going into the King of Country's Texas-sized Tennessee farewell show at Bridgestone Arena Friday night, some of those expectations were met before we even entered the building — like how half the dudes on hand were dressed up like some version of Ropin' the Wind-era Garth Brooks en route to a Marlboro Man convention. Meanwhile, it seemed as though there were just as many ladies as dudes in line sporting cowboy hats.
There was a vintage, '90s Middle 'Merica feel to whole event, from the oil-paint-y, commemorative-plate-style Strait souvenir cups you could buy fer yer beer, to the fixed, mega-close-up, 700 Club-style shots of Strait singing saw-dusty classics like "Ocean Front Property" and "Fool Hearted Memory" on a quartet of movie-theater-sized rear-projection screens. And speaking of vintage '90s shenanigans: Sheryl Crow.
By the time we'd bought our barley pop and made it to our rather excellent seats, the house was packed to the gills, with all eyes fixated on opener Crow in the middle of her country carpetbagger routine, singing her rusty 1996 downer "Redemption Day" while war imagery and waving American flags appeared on the screens. Johnny Cash covered "Redemption Day" in 2003, and, like shooting fish in a barrel, Crow got a huge roar from country fans when the Man in Black's voice was piped in. We thought it was just awkward-cheesy. Crow went in for her victory lap, which started with — in medley form — "Picture" (luckily, Kid Rock was neither on hand to sing his parts nor was his voice piped in), into "If It Makes You Happy," into "Soak up the Sun," closing with "Every Day Is a Winding Road." Each song sounded breezy and tepid as ever and had all the boomers around us rocking out — while still staying in their seats, of course. Later, though, Crow would get to play to a crowd on its feet when she returned to the stage to duet with Strait on the rockabilly roadhouse chugger "Here for a Good Time" and the slow-dance weeper "When Did You Stop Loving Me," which spellbound the house.
Strait made his entrance like a prizefighter, being escorted to the ring, so to speak, by an entourage of security amid deafening cheers. Despite the fanfare, the man of the hour couldn't have had a more casual air to him as he strapped on his six-string and cued his longtime Ace in the Hole Band into an opening "Fireman," which went straight into an en masse sing-along of "Check Yes or No." So back to expectations — certainly it was no surprise to see the Marlboro men and women filling the arena react to nearly every song in Strait's hit-replete, 34-song set with deafening fawning fervor. After all, this was a stop on a farewell tour. Or was it?
"The old cowboy's riding away, but not really," Strait bantered early in the show. "I'll still be around." He was almost smirking, as if to say, "We all know calling it a farewell tour is more of a warning shot than a true declaration." Strait recently signed a five-album deal, so should we take bets on how long it'll be before the seemingly inevitable comeback tour is announced?
Given Strait's 60 No. 1s, we expected the singer's set to be chock-full of hits. And it was, boasting every Strait-up staple from "Unwound" (a major show highlight) to the ultimate lonely cowboy's barroom ballad "The Chair," during which even ushers sang along. Performing in the round, throughout the show Strait went to a mic at a different corner of the stage, singing to a different quarter of the arena, moving counter-clockwise like clockwork. This had hilariously disorienting effects for the shit-hammered crowd. A few songs in, one obviously intoxicated lady came to our seats, thinking they were hers, noting how, when she left, Strait was facing her and singing. Unfortunately, thanks to her booze-hindered perception, it took a minute for it to sink in that using Strait as a landmark was a bad tactical move and she was now hopelessly lost.
We weren't surprised the 61-year-old recent CMA Entertainer of the Year wrangled a couple country A-listers, aside from Crow, to make guest appearances at this Nashville gig. Aviators model Eric Church came out and guested on "Cowboys Like Us," which was ironic, seeing that the "Springsteen" singer was wearing stylish fitted jeans and a puka shell necklace, looking less like a cowboy than perhaps anybody else in the building. Anybody but Kenny Chesney that is, who — casually clad in a baseball cap and T-shirt — joined in later to help Strait croon "Amarillo by Morning," the sound of which was almost drowned out by the ear-splitting cheers of the crowd. That was the peak moment of the show, at least until the encore, when — by this time tanked and singing along — we realized that Tennessee is perhaps the best non-Bush-country territory to see Strait perform "All My Ex's Live in Texas."
Despite the meeting of all those expectations, though, the whole time it felt like something was missing. This show just wasn't as transcendent or exciting for us as we'd hoped it would be. Maybe Garth just spoiled us a few years back, but George Strait has always come off as fairly aloof with his rugged stoicism, and in person it wasn't any different. Sure, he flashed his million-dollar smile as he crooned his classics in fine-as-wine-aged voice — with each honky-tonk stomper and hole-in-the-wall ballad just dripping with butter — but he never really broke the fourth wall. His terse banter mostly felt canned, and even in the most intimate moments — like a tender "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" or a rousing "Troubadour" — it just felt like you could never get close to the singer, which we admit is also part of his rough, enigmatic appeal.
We really hope you brought the tortilla chips: Juicy J's fans did their best to turn Marathon Music Works into a hot box, and The Spin still has the munchies. All stoned philosophizing aside, Sunday night's show delivered the prime-time hip-hop extravaganza we needed to close out our weekend, with the old-school Memphis MC showing that his grip on the contemporary game is rock solid.
The security line was half a block long when The Spin strolled up at 8:45, but it was nonetheless quick and efficient. We were still bummed to miss late-added opener Jung Youth, though we saw him just a couple of weeks ago. He didn't exactly blow us away that time, but he's got some solid raw material and a strong hustler spirit, evident in the stack of CDs left at every cash register on the bar.
We were honestly surprised when Project Pat went on at 9 p.m., almost on the dot. Three 6 Mafia helped put the South on the map as a hip-hop hub! They were the first rap group to win an Oscar! Along with Juicy and the rest of Three 6, Pat helped make the genre what it is today, and he's going on at 9 o'clock? Our questions aside, he had no need to show off. Buff as hell, the veteran MC stalked out, cool as could be, and owned the place, tearing up a 30-minute set that wrapped with "Chicken Head."
Just as the changeover before Travi$ Scott's set began to drag, the lights went purple, plumes of weed smoke went up, and hypeman Chaz began to work the crowd. Scott dropped his debut mixtape just over a year ago, but he's been working hard on his aggressive, turnt-up post-crunk style under the wings of some heavy hitters — OK, so his biggest credit so far is on Jay Z's Magna Carta ... Holy Grail, and about the only figure in contemporary hip-hop who wasn't part of that record is Pharrell's hat, but make no mistake, Scott goes hard. From his rhymes to his beats to his stage presence, Scott was supremely athletic, never standing still, launching himself into the crowd during the first song. Knowing full well that the second set is often an excuse to buy drinks before the headliner, Scott made it a point to jump on every bar in the room and introduce himself to the folks in line before his time was up.
Despite hip-hop's respect for the OGs, it's still a game that moves at the speed of pop culture, and trying to keep up can wear an MC out. Juicy J has the contemporary sound on lock, but like his older brother, Project Pat, J's presence is a bit more nuanced, relying on well-honed old-school chops. If Travi$ Scott's set was a sprint, the Three 6 co-founder set himself up for a long run: His intensity ebbed and flowed, and when he ramped up the energy, we felt it in our gut.
Playing to his new-found millennial audience, J started with a slew of tunes from Stay Trippy, bringing out his recent hit "Bandz a Make Her Dance" early in the set. Lately, he's been traveling the inner circles of contemporary pop, working with Dr. Luke and supplying guest verses for The Weeknd and Katy Perry, whose "Dark Horse" he dropped during this set. Multiple times, he stopped to take selfies and pour champagne for everyone in the front row, careful to check hand stamps and not give it to the underage fans. He's already given out his genius "twerking scholarship," but he still brought a bunch of girls and one dude onstage for some dance-team deflowering. Maybe the scene wasn't as rowdy as A$AP Rocky, but it got respectably wild for a school night.
We felt like the crowd held a little something back during the first half of the set, but then came a Three 6 medley that took the energy in the room to another level. "How many of y'all grew up on this shit?" J asked before firing off verses from "Sippin' on Some Syrup," "Stay Fly," "Tear Da Club Up" and "Slob on My Knob," to which the crowd promptly lost it. The numbers tell us that Tennessee takes special pride in Juicy J — not that he's the most-played artist in the state, but that we have a disproportionately large amount of love for him — but he and the Nashville crowd proved it beyond the shadow of a doubt. Thanks for the fuzzy memories. We're going to go find some sunglasses and Alka-Seltzer.
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