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Strait Fest closes on high note

Enron Field, Houston, June 11, 2000

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - What annual concert series features seven - count 'em - seven stars of country music? You guessed it - the George Strait Festival

This year's lineup featured three repeat acts from last year's fest - Asleep at the Wheel, Tim McGraw, and, of course, George Strait. The others were an up-and-comer (Lee Ann Womack), an artist on the downhill slide of fame (Mark Chesnutt), and two current stars (Kenny Chesney and Martina McBride).

Asleep at the Wheel opened the closing show of this year's tour with their standard selection of western swing tunes. One would expect them to get tired of playing the same 5 or 10 songs over and over, yet they've made a solid, but not spectacular, career of it.

They opened with "Cherokee Maiden" and went through the required Texas-pride songs, "Miles and Miles of Texas" and "You're From Texas." The slow, lilting "Red River Valley" was a nice change of pace and featured some surprisingly good sax, dobro and fiddle solos. They closed with "House of Blue Lights." AATW is not outstanding, but they're keeping the tradition of Bob Wills alive, and for that, every fan of traditional country music should be grateful.

Womack followed, and based on her concert, she's a singer with a fair voice who's been lucky to get a few great songs to record. Her latest song, "I Hope You Dance," is a perfect example. It's a wonderfully written song, telling the listener to live life to the fullest and always appreciate the miracle that we've been given. But Womack's thin voice fails to convey the message in the same way that a Trisha, Wynonna, or Martina could.

She also performed hits like "A Little Past Little Rock" and "Talk to Me," and she closed with "I'll Think of a Reason Later."

Chesnutt's career has been an interesting one. He had his first radio hit around the same time as the other hat acts - Garth, Clint, Alan - but he never quite achieved their popularity. Nevertheless, six or so years ago, fresh off the smash hit "Bubba Shot the Jukebox," he decided to headline a tour of major concert arenas, and it was a horrible failure. At the Chicago stop, they were giving away tickets, and the 20,000-seat arena still only had about 3,000 people in it.

Now, he's back to opening-act status, but still puts on a great show. He put the most energy into his show of any act by far, jumping around the stage and working up a good sweat early on. The biggest musical surprise was his version of the swing hit "Jump Jive and Wail," which came complete with a sax and horn. That one had the crowd dancing along. He closed with "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," earning him the rock-cover-artist-of-the-day award.

Chesney has risen to star status over the past few years, and it's easy to see why. He's blessed with a natural country voice - slightly twangy but not so much so as to offend new country fans. He's also got a great bunch of fun, upbeat country songs like "She's Got It All," "Fall in Love" and "How Forever Feels."

Maybe his best ever, though, is his most recent number one hit, "What I Need to Do." It's a midtempo song that paints a vivid picture - the singer's driving on the highway at night, alone, listening to some sad songs on the radio, and missing the girl he's left behind.

On the other hand, "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" is a song that really didn't need to be recorded. But overall, Chesney put on a great show. He even threw in a cover of "For a Little While" in tribute to Tim McGraw after their little run-in with the law over stealing a horse.

Martina McBride used to deliver consistently high-quality, artistic music, but unfortunately, she's lately turned to country pop schlock, and that's what dominated her performance.

Songs like "Happy Girl" and "I Love You" are simply a waste of one of the greatest voices in country music, and even "Love's the Only House," which at least has a serious message, can't overcome its overly pop production. McBride succeeded with the traditional country heartbreak song, "Wrong Again," and her closing signature song, "Independence Day." "Valentine" was cute because during the song home videos of McBride, her husband, and their two children were projected onto the screens above the stage.

McGraw gave a typically crowd-pleasing performance. He won't go down as one of the most creative artists of all time, but he could go down as one of the most fun. He opened with "Something Like That" and played his smash hit party songs like "Down on the Farm," "I Like It, I Love It," and "Indian Outlaw."

He also proved he has a more sensitive and serious side. "Everywhere" is a beautiful song about the singer's inability to forget about a girl he dated for a short time. "All I Want" is an angry-sounding song that demands that the poor man get what he deserves.

The highlight of McGraw's show came between songs, however, when Faith Hill appeared in a policewoman's outfit and took McGraw off the stage in handcuffs. It's good to see that no one's taking McGraw and Chesney's little mishap too seriously.

Finally, after over seven hours of lesser lights came the artist everyone had been waiting for. Strait came onto the stage in his standard white hat, starched button-down shirt and blue jeans, and the audience went absolutely wild.

Strait is quite possibly the most adored country artist in Houston, bar none. Clint Black has a good following because he played Houston bars before he got his record deal, and Clay Walker is currently very hot, but no one can induce hysterics in Houston country fans quite like Strait.

He started with some classic, more traditional songs, opening with "The Fireman" and "Amarillo by Morning" and running through Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues," Bob Wills' "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and "Milk Cow Blues." But then he sang "Heartland" from his movie "Gone Country," and that moved him into the more modern stuff.

Right out of the box, Strait and his Ace in the Hole Band were in full form, sounding great. And they managed to play for two hours, performing almost nothing but number one hit songs, yet they still left out some of Strait's best songs. Only the best artists can go onstage for several hours and still leave the fans clamoring for more, and Strait is certainly one of the best.

He played "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" but left out "Love Without End, Amen." He performed "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind" but missed "Marina Del Rey." He did "Check Yes or No" but neglected "All My Ex's Live in Texas."

His last song before the encore was "Unwound," and then for the encore he did "Lovebug," Johnny Cash's "Cry Cry Cry" and his standard closing song, "The Cowboy Rides Away." He didn't ride away immediately, though, staying a long time to shake fans' hands and sign autographs.

If you're a fan of new country music and you can only see one concert a year, Strait's festival is the winner, hands down. You not only get to see one of country's all-time greats, but you also get a sampling of other currently popular country acts, most very good. But unfortunately, you'll have to wait till next year.

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