A triumphant end to the first full concert season in two years, The King of Country, George Streethas lived up to the hype build since its appearance on the 90th season of RodeoHouston came to light in May 2021.
The organizers of RodeoHouston handled the big show of the year smartly, bringing in the second best-selling male country artist of all time, behind only Garth Brooks, with 70 million albums sold and 60 No. 1 country hits. The evening marked the 23rd appearance of the Pearsall, Texas-raised icon.
Many fans went into the night wondering if it would be a repeat of his performance in 2019, when he concluded that RodeoHouston season by setting an NRG Stadium record with 80,108 fans in attendance. At that performance, Strait spoiled fans with an extended set of more than two hours that included performances by Texas country legends, Robert Earn Keen and Lyle Lovett.
The seating configuration largely mirrored the 2019 performance, drawing a near-record setting of 79,452, easily this year’s biggest crowd. A sequel of sorts, Strait’s extensive setlist also stayed mostly the same with a waist-deep pool of 29 songs played over the course of more than two hours, 20 of which were during his last rodeo show.
Slightly different this time, Strait gave the opening set to a fresh, classic Nashville songwriter instead of presenting the traditional Texas folk country of Keen and Lovett.
Dressed in a sparkly black one-armed jumpsuit, it was easy to see why up-and-coming Arkansas-raised singer-songwriter Ashley McBryde got the nod to open the night. Her eighth time playing with George Strait, winner of ACM New Vocalist of the Year 2018 and CMA New Artist of the Year 2019, brought a little Reba McEntire twang, heartfelt lyrics a la Miranda Lambert and a dash of old school country rebellion.
The Grammy-nominated artist tore through the favorites from her first two critically acclaimed country albums, The Breakthrough of 2018, Girl isn’t going anywhereand 2020 never will† That included set opener “Martha Devine,” “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” “Voodoo Doll” and “Whiskey + Country Music,” which debuted on the Grand Ol’ Opry.
Her performance also included a fiery rendition of “Midnight Rider” by the Allman Brothers Band, complete with a devil horn-worthy guitar solo by her guitarist, Chris Harris. She recognized that this was the biggest audience she’d ever played to, and she didn’t pass up the opportunity.
After a short 20-minute break, it was time for what the crowd had been waiting for: the 69-year-old Street stepping through a tunnel and forgoing the usual Ford truck ride to the podium. That led to the first deafening applause of the evening.
Dressed in a red and white checked shirt, black cowboy hat, blue jeans and brown cowboy boots, he immediately set to work with the number 1 song, “Heartland” of the pure country soundtrack, backed by his tight 11-piece Ace in the Hole band that produced a huge, span-filling sound.
Second, the 1996 hit “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” was the first of many country and western heartthrobs, vividly recalling the toll the rodeo life took on a tragic couple.
“Hello Houston!” Strait eventually greeted fans with his signature smile, much to the excitement. “Oh that sounds, good.”
The band kicked in the number 2 hit “Here For a Good Time” of 2011, the first of the night to attract the first sing-along. Strait mostly stayed in front of the microphone, eschewing the showboating of some of the younger performers over the past three weeks. There was, however, a dignified, reassuring presence in his demeanor, with the audience having to do little more for him than play from his legendary songbook.
No. 1 1995 hit “Check Yes or Now” again garnered significant response, as did 1987’s “Ocean Front Property,” with the latter earning another loud sing-along. “We’re going to do an old one,” Strait said before kicking in a rousing rendition of the Waylon Jennings song, “Waymore’s Blues,” featuring an impressive guitar solo from longtime Strait bandmate Rick McRae and pianist Ronnie Huckaby.
The trio of C&W break-up songs, “I Ain’t Her Cowboy Anymore”, from 2006 It just comes naturally“That’s What Breaking Hearts Do,” from 2013 album Love is all – with a great steel guitar solo from Mike Daily – and number 1 track “Give It Away”, it could have become country song cliché. But Strait’s serious delivery and sense of melody transcended genre tropes.
And because this was a country show, Strait again paid tribute to first responders with 2019’s “The Weight of the Badge.” Honky Tonk Time Machine, a song that no doubt caught the eye of much of the crowd and sparked a cry as video screens shared photos of the Houston Police Department, Houston Fire Department, and Texas Rangers. That preceded a presentation of a new home to a Gold Star family, often done at Strait shows, with the audience gobbling it up.
The second half of the show kicked off with what amounted to a commercial for Strait’s 2019 tequila, “Codigo.” Honky Tonk Time Machine† The song didn’t chart, but hey, that tequila isn’t going to sell itself. That was followed by a relatively deep cut, “Adalida” from lead on, reaching number 3 on the map in 1995.
“I’ve been asked a lot what my favorite song is. Do you know what it is?” Strait asked before launching the classic “Amarillo By Morning,” a noticeable cheer that went off after the “Brought my Saddle to Houston” line. It was one of the best and biggest sing-alongs, cowboys and cowgirls of the night on the floor of NRG Stadium. A photo from his first appearance at RodeoHouston shown on the giant video screens at the end of the song made the decibels through the roof.
“Here’s my second or third favorite,” Strait said with a big smile, now getting into a groove. “It’s called ‘The Chair.’” The romantic No. 1 pick-up song from 1985 is still in style nearly 40 years later. 2011’s Here for a good time hit “I’ll Always Remember You” made the country crooner look to the future as he hangs up the cowboy hat for good. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing this, but when I’m done I know you won’t be far away and I’ll hear years of cheers and screams. I will always remember you.’
The evening’s oldest song and Strait’s first radio hit, 1981’s “Unwound” Streetland, the set ended with the singer waving goodbye to the crowd before walking off stage toward the tunnel. No one left their seats, and after a sustained cacophony of voices that grew louder and louder, Strait inevitably came back out for his required encore.
Audiences spoke all words in their mouths for the first of four bonus tracks, It Never Gets Old, “All My Exes Live In Texas”, followed by 2005’s “Take Me to Texas”. Somewhere in Texas† That gave way to a cover of the late, great Tom Petty’s “Wreck Me”, a showcase for his guitarists. The evening ended with the 1985 favourite, ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’.
And with that, the curtain closed on the 2022 RodeoHouston season, an extraordinary return after missing half of the 2020 calendar and all of 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
RodeoHouston’s organizers, committee members and volunteers are to be commended for showing no signs of rust in welcoming hundreds of thousands of people to the NRG Stadium. A well-deserved round of applause goes to LD Systems, who are in charge of the fantastic light and sound show that has wowed the audience for the past three weeks.
While it seemed like a return to the grassroots approach the event made a name for with a number of returning country performers, RodeoHouston really shined its best as it tried to reach every corner of Houston culture. It filled the seats for hip-hop fans with Bun-B’s highly regarded H-Town Takeover; it played for the diehard classic rock crowd with Journey’s spectacular performance.
Gwen Stefani spoke to Gen Xers at what was arguably the best concert of the year. And Marshmello drew thousands of kid-loving DJs in gimmicky helmets alongside compassionate family members.
RodeoHouston may be another year into the sunset, but what a welcome back to the beloved annual tradition, part of the quintessential fabric that makes Houston a rich and diverse city.
“I Can Still Make Cheyenne”
“Here for a good time”
“I Saw God Today”
“Check Yes or No”
“I have a car”
“So won, so run”
“Ocean Front Property”
“Waymore’s Blues” (Waylon Jennings cover)
“I’m Not Her Cowboy Anymore”
“That’s What Breaking Hearts Do”
“Give It Away”
“Every Little Honky Tonk Bar”
“Marina Del Ray”
“Weight of the Badge”
“Amarillo By Morning”
“Come on Joe”
“I will always remember you”
“All my exes live in Texas”
“Take Me to Texas”
“Wreck Me” (Tom Petty cover)
“The Cowboy Rides Away”