Steady as he goes, Strait pleases his faithful fans

The Baltimore Sun

There's a reason he's called King George.

In a recording career spanning nearly 30 years, country crooner George Strait has notched 55 No. 1 hits, more than any artist in any genre. His approach, steeped in tradition, is sturdy and dependable, buoyed by one of the warmest baritones in country music. He has sold more than 75 million albums.

So it's little wonder that the unassuming vocalist - who has long been a hot touring act, routinely generating multimillion dollars in ticket sales - draws huge crowds.

Strait's ingratiating Friday night show at 1st Mariner Arena attracted thousands of worshipful fans, many standing on their feet throughout his 90-minute performance. Every section of the place was full. The Baltimore crowd could have easily been mistaken for one in Texas, Strait's home state. There were 10-gallon hats, Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots galore.

But the attire was appropriate. Strait's music unabashedly celebrates such aesthetics and, often without sinking into cliche, charmingly extols elements of heartland living.

Dressed in a crisp blue-plaid shirt, jeans and his signature black cowboy hat, Strait, who looks much slighter in person than he does in promo shots, opened with "Honk if You Honky Tonk," a rowdy crowd-pleaser. The 55-year-old performer and his fine 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band appeared on a square stage in the middle of the arena floor. It was an in-the-round configuration that included four microphone stands at strategic points, allowing Strait to sing for different parts of the house as his every move was caught on overhead screens.

Each song (Strait sang more than 20 hits) breezed by. Strait and his band didn't exactly rush through the numbers, but they didn't allow much room for embellishments or improvisations. They stuck closely to arrangements heard on the albums, which Strait fans undoubtedly appreciate.

The set was well-paced, with defiant, swaggering tunes such as "Ocean Front Property," "I Hate Everything" and "Run" upfront. Midway, Strait delved tenderly into matters of an aching heart, his velvet-and-leather voice giving gravity to "She'll Leave You With a Smile" and "I Ain't Her Cowboy Anymore." Then, he smoothly segued into songs extolling his Southern roots. During "Texas," a tune that sounds like a commercial for the state, images of the Dallas Cowboys and the state flag flashed across the overhead screens.

After a lengthy run of old hits, Strait performed two prime cuts from his latest album, Troubadour, released last week. The title track and the slightly drippy ballad "I Saw God Today" sounded much like the past hits. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The country star radiated an easy, neighborly charm, and the crowd was ecstatic the entire time. After each number, he tipped his hat, flashed a handsome grin and mouthed "thank you." The gestures seemed sincere each time.

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