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Strait plays it straight country, unlike others in day-long country fest

Edison International Field, Anaheim, Cal., April 25, 1998

By Dan MacIntosh

ANAHEIM, CAL. - On a warm spring day at Edison International Field, approximately 48,000 country music fans gathered for a most rare event: a country music stadium show.

Headlined by George Strait, and sponsored by a truck company, a jeans maker and (to give it a Ninties touch) a cellular phone company, this 10- hour multi-artist marathon went from afternoon to nightfall with hardly a hitch.

Although Strait doesn't have the charisma of, say, Garth Brooks, he still proved to be a comfortable host to such a large musical congregation.

Shortly before 9 p.m., Strait took the stage sandwiched between two large video screens, which presented the man of the hour ranching in one of the show's sponsor's trucks, before commerce gave way to art.

Along with his steadily brilliant backing unit, The Ace in the Hole Band, he calmly worked his way through 90 minutes of swing tunes, honky tonk laments and ballads.

Strait played it straight with a set that stuck tightly to the basics of country music, without ever sacrificing entertainment value. With the ever-present great fiddling of Gene Elders, and the rest of his eight-piece band, the man in the striped cowboy shirt let the music speak for itself.

In a country music scene where youth and sex appeal are oftentimes the two most important factors in deciding success or failure, Strait is an inspirational figure to be still hanging around the top of the charts after all these years.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Strait never resorts to tough guy posturing or crowd-pleasing track meet jaunts around the stage. It forced the audience to listen, and Strait drew from a repertoire worth listening to.

Interspersed within his set of hits, Strait also tipped his hat to Merle Haggard (who once recorded a live album at this very venue many moons ago) with "Mama Tried" and even took a stab at the old "Milk Cow Blues."

The surprisingly fine stadium sound system revealed what a deceptively fine singer Strait is. It's sometimes easy to miss the beautiful accuracy of his vocals, since he makes it sound so easy. But his voice is a full-bodied Instrument that floats confidently over any style his band chooses to throw at him.

Tim McGraw preceded Strait with rocking set of country tunes. In fact, drums and bass were so prominent in the mix, the banjo intro for "Just to See You Smile" midway through came as a nice break from all the electrical bombast. Brooks can carry off this sort of powerful approach, but few others (including McGraw) have that intangible bigger-than-life presence to make it work.

McGraw's 15-song set featured all of his big hits, but the biggest audience applause came during his encore when, to nobody's great surprise, he was joined by his wife, Faith Hill, for a duet on "It's Your Love." This automatic momentum creator segued right into the closer, the beer commercial/hit "I Like It, I Love it."

Songs, such as the simplistic and intentionally heart tugging "Don't Take the Girl," reveal that McGraw is more of a populist than an authentic artist, and it left the concert-goer entertained, but hungry for a little (a lot?) more substance.

This is even more than can be said for John Michael Montgomery's extremely trite set. While "I Swear" was a pleasant enough song of devotion, it really wouldn't challenge any vocalist worth his salt. But when Montgomery attempted to stretch his thin voice on songs that took him out of his vocal comfort zone, his abilities were found to be sadly wanting.

Montgomery unwisely attempted to play guitar hero and rock vocalist at the end of his set and ended up sounding like a second rate Hendrix imitator, without the necessary vocal chops to pull of anything with even a mite more guts than his by-the-numbers ballads.

This set closing fiasco came in the form of a cover of "Sweet Home Alabama," which served as a truly baffling song choice. Why on earth would this native of Nicholasville, Ky. need to cover such a dated and politically charged song? He's not from Alabama, nor does he have anything against Neil Young.

The real reason for this selection, though, was simply to appeal to the audience's immediate recognition of a classic rock song; a stage tactic that demeans the integrity of the composition and panders to the crowd's willingness to be entertained at any cost. If an artist covers a song, it should at least tell the listener something about that artist, instead of handing that performer in question an unearned set-ending ovation on a silver platter.

Hill was the last of a trio of female artists on the bill to appear before the big boys. The playing of "Stay with Me" (an old Rod Stewart rocker) over the stadium sound system just before Hill's appearance foretold a lot about what would be heard once she took the stage.

Kidding about being barefoot and pregnant again, Hill proved to be both a soulful singer and pretty girl with a nice self-deprecating sense of humor. Although the wordy "This Kiss" may be her current single, the cover of the old Janis Joplin hit "Take Another Little Piece of My Heart" at the tag end of her appearance was more telling of just where Hill's musical roots go.

Unfortunately, Hill's backing band sounded closer to pop musician's accompaniment - only with a slight southern accent. It barely passed for country. Much like a lot of today's crop of current female country artists, Hill's music is closer to the pop world's Whitneys, than it is to yesterday's Wynettes.

Lee Ann Womack's short half-hour set packed in a bountiful bunch of musical delights: From the cute cover of Dean Martin's "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You," to the gospel detour of "Get Up in Jesus Name," Womack covered a lot of ground in a short time, with confident singing and a sweet stage presence.

Unlike Hill, Womack is able to play the powerful singing female lead, without sacrificing her roots. Let's hope that her recent award for best new country female artist will inspire the country music community to support the kind of tradition-respecting music she makes.

The youthful Lila McCann, and the gracefully aging swing of Asleep at the Wheel opened the festival with quickie stints.

You could argue with the merit of a few acts on this bill, but Strait should be commended for attempting such a difficult commercial and artistic balancing act, which still succeeded at filling most of the seats.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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