A triumphant end to the first full concert season in two years, The King of Country, George Strait, delivered on the hype building since his appearance at the 90th season of RodeoHouston came to light way back in May 2021.
RodeoHouston organizers smartly went big with the year's marquee show, bringing in the second-highest selling male country artist of all time, only behind Garth Brooks, with 70 million albums sold and 60 No. 1 country hits. The night marked the 23rd appearance by the Pearsall, Texas-raised icon.
Going into the night, many fans wondered if it would it be a repeat of his 2019 performance, when he completed that RodeoHouston season by setting an NRG Stadium record with 80,108 fans in attendance. At that performance, Strait indulged the fans with an extensive, two-hour-plus set with appearances by Texas country legends, Robert Earn Keen and Lyle Lovett.
The seating configuration largely mirrored the 2019 gig, drawing an almost record-setting 79,452, easily this year's biggest crowd. A sequel of sorts, Strait's extended setlist remained much of the same too with a waist-deep pool of 29 songs played over the course of two-plus hours, 20 of those covered at his last rodeo show.
Something different this time around, Strait gave the opening set to a fresh-faced, classic Nashville songwriter instead of showcasing the traditional Texas folk-country of Keen and Lovett.
Dressed in a sparkly black one-armed jump-suit, 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, the 2018 ACM New Vocalist of the Year winner and 2019 CMA New Artist of the Year brought a little Reba McEntire twang, heartfelt lyrics a la Miranda Lambert, and a hint of old school country rebelliousness.
The Grammy-nominated artist ripped through favorites from her first two critically acclaimed country albums, 2018’s breakthrough, Girl Going Nowhere, and 2020’s Never Will. That included set-opener "Martha Devine," "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega," "Voodoo Doll," and "Whiskey + Country Music," which she debuted at the Grand Ol' Opry.
Her performance also included a fiery rendition of the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider," complete with a devil-horns worthy guitar solo by her guitarist, Chris Harris. She acknowledged it was the biggest crowd she had ever played to, and she didn’t waste the opportunity.
After a quick 20-minute intermission, it was time for what the crowd had been waiting for, the 69-year-old Strait strutting through a tunnel, forgoing the customary Ford truck ride to the stage. That elicited the first round of ear-shattering applause of the night.
Dressed in a red and white plaid dress shirt, black cowboy hat, blue jeans, and brown cowboy boots, he got right down to business with the No. 1 song, "Heartland" from the Pure Country soundtrack, backed by his tight, 11-piece Ace in the Hole band that put forth a huge, rafter-filling sound.
Second up, the 1996 hit "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" was the first of many country and western heartbreakers, vividly recalling the toll living the life of the rodeo had on one tragic couple.
"Hello Houston!" Strait finally greeted the fans with his trademark smile, to much excitement. "Oh that sounds, good."
The band kicked into No. 2 2011 hit "Here For a Good Time," which drew the first singalong. Strait largely stayed in front of the microphone, eschewing the showboating of some of the younger performers over the past three weeks. However, there was a dignified, comforting presence to his demeanor, the audience not needing him to do much more than play from his storied songbook.
No. 1 1995 hit "Check Yes or Now" got a another big response, as did 1987's "Ocean Front Property," the latter earning another full-throated singalong. "We’re going to do an old one," Strait said before kicking into a rousing version of the Waylon Jennings track, "Waymore’s Blues," featuring an impressive guitar solo by long time Strait band member Rick McRae and pianist Ronnie Huckaby.
The trio of C&W break-up songs, "I Ain’t Her Cowboy Anymore," from 2006's It Just Comes Natural, "That's What Breaking Hearts Do," from 2013 album Love Is Everything — featuring a great steel guitar solo from Mike Daily — and No. 1 song "Give It Away," could have given into country song-cliché. But Strait's earnest delivery and sense of melody transcended genre tropes.
And because this was a country show, Strait once again paid tribute to first responders with "The Weight of the Badge" from 2019’s Honky Tonk Time Machine, a track that no doubt spoke to a large portion of the crowd, producing a whoop when the 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, commonly done at Strait’s shows, the crowd lapping it up.
The second-half of the show started off with what amounted to a commercial for Strait’s tequila, "Codigo" from 2019’s Honky Tonk Time Machine. The song didn’t chart but hey, that tequila isn't going to sell itself. That was followed by relative deep cut, "Adalida" from Lead On, hitting No. 3 on the country chart back in 1995.
"I’ve been asked a lot what my favorite song is. Do you know what it is?," Strait queried before kicking into the classic "Amarillo By Morning," a noticeable cheer going out after the "they took my saddle in Houston" line. It was one of the night's best and biggest singalongs, cowboys and cowgirls square dancing on the NRG Stadium floor. A photo from his first appearance at RodeoHouston shown on the giant video screens at the end of the song sent 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" got the country crooner looking towards the future when he hangs up the cowboy hat for good. "I don't know how much longer I will do this, but when I am done, I know you won’t be far way and I’ll hear year cheering and screaming. I'll always remember you."
The oldest track of the night and Strait’s first radio hit, "Unwound" from 1981's Strait Country, finished the set with the singer waving goodbye to the audience before walking off stage towards the tunnel. No one left their seats, and after a sustained cacophony of voices that got louder and louder, Strait inevitably came back out for his requisite encore.
The crowd mouthed all the words for the first of four bonus tracks, the never-gets-old, "All My Exes Live In Texas," followed by "Take Me to Texas" from 2005's Somewhere Down in Texas. That gave way to a cover of the late, great Tom Petty’s "Wreck Me," a showcase for his guitarists. The night finished with the 1985 favorite, "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 the entirety of 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
RodeoHouston organizers, committee members, and volunteers should be commended for showing no signs of rust in welcoming back hundreds of thousands to NRG Stadium. A deserved shout-out goes to LD Systems, in charge of the fantastic light and sound show that amazed audiences over the last three weeks.
While it seemed like a return-to-basics approach that the event made its name on with a number of returning country performers, RodeoHouston really shined the brightest when it sought to reach every corner of Houston culture. It filled the seats for hip-hop fans with the highly regarded Bun-B's H-Town Takeover; it played to the diehard classic rock crowd with Journey's spectacular performance.
Gwen Stefani spoke to Gen Xers in what might have been the best concert of the year. And Marshmello drew thousands of kids who simply love DJs in gimmicky helmets alongside compassionate family members.
RodeoHouston may mosey off into the sunset for another year, but what a welcome back for 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 Got A Car"
"Easy Come, Easy Go"
"Ocean Front Property"
"Waymore's Blues" (Waylon Jennings cover)
"I Ain’t Her Cowboy Anymore"
"That’s What Breaking Hearts Do"
"Give It Away"
"Every Little Honky Tonk Bar"
"Marina Del Ray"
"The Weight of the Badge"
"Amarillo By Morning"
"Come On Joe"
"I'll Always Remember You"
"All My Exes Live in Texas"
"Take Me to Texas"
"Wreck Me" (Tom Petty cover)
"The Cowboy Rides Away"