Reba sends “Tremors” through Greensboro while Strait just gives it away
There are so few popular artists with catalogs that are capable of cutting right to the heart of their fans the way those of George Strait and Reba McEntire can, which is why they have genuinely earned the billing as the King and Queen of Country music billing of their current co-headlining tour. Decades of consistency in the face of celebrity and one hit single after another has a way of separating the legends from the stars, and both have rightly achieved their lofty status. While mainstream country has slowly degenerated into a tawdry and artless butt-wiggling contest, Strait and McEntire have retained the dignity befitting their traditionalist origins. By only the second show of this mega-tour, however, it’s been made clear which of the two can make the stronger claim to being the top performer in all of country music.
The long night of music started with a brief performance by Lee Ann Womack, though it was evident that a certain contingent of the crowd was there for the newly brunette singer. Five songs was barely a taster, considering the massive group of Nashville sessionistas she is dragging around, but large backing ensembles seem to be status quo for this tour. Womack was the perfect opener for McEntire, however, as her heavy Western influences speak to the redheaded diva’s early years and the roots of both are nurtured by the same purist country waters.
McEntire only hinted at that facet of her musical persona for much of the evening, instead opting to populate her 90-minute set heavily with genre-bending crossover hits intensified by robust, very un-country-like guitar solos. Her overwhelming folksiness ensures that any mainstream pop connection only happens flirtatiously and rightly so. The instances where her Southern-gothic and Westernswing leanings, like her cover of“Why Haven’t I Heard from You?” and the Bobby Russell hit “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” were some of the most blithely engaging moments of the evening, even for a casual bystander such as myself, yet Reba showed repeatedly that her music is capable of transcending classification into pointed, emotional balladry.
“The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” a song about paternal distance, found her wiping tears from her eyes at its conclusion and her judicious adult-contempo medley of “Somebody Should Leave,” “For My Broken Heart” and “Does He Love You” kept the tearjerkers from overpowering the set. Lee Ann Womack joined on the latter, allowing Reba to show off her highly-polished stage presence during their exchanges, one honed to perfection during her time on Broadway and television.
Reba made a few passing references to her non-musical performance experience, but few expected it to be portentous of things to come in the set, which is why it was a(n) (un)pleasant surprise for Melissa Peterman to appear in character as Reba’s Barbra Jean Booker-Hart. Sporting a T-shirt touting both George Strait and her new show “The Singing Bee,” Peterman reminded why her character was one of the most maddeningly overthe-top in TV history with an endless bounty of cheesy one-liners and hyperactive fidgeting. Reba almost played herself from the show, putting on a sarcastic and demeaning veneer for the overwrought skit that concluding in the performance of the show’s theme song. Fans ate it up, however, as the variety lent even greater aplomb to what was already going to be a difficult act to follow for Strait.
Shortly after an encore taxi ride that saw Reba reemerge in her signature red dress, Strait’s 11-piece Ace in the Hold Band unassumingly took the stage before Strait himself appeared to deafening applause. He immediately tore into the rowdy Jim Lauderdale-penned title track to his Grammy-nominated album Twang, which would regrettably represent the peak of the two-hour performance’s energy level. Strait is a musical icon without question, but he appeared to rely solely on his tacit stage presence to carry the crowd’s enthusiasm through his collection of squarely and plainly delivered hits. It’s not at all that Strait is an unqualified performer; he simply didn’t deliver with the same vivacity and showmanship that Reba brought to the stage. It didn’t help that his classics rely heavily on F-minor and A chords to give a vaguely formulaic feel to them when arranged so succinctly, but his dearth of crowd interaction gave the show an aloof and tedious ambiance. It is worth noting that one of the few times he took to the crowd, he asked the Greensboro audience how many in attendance were from Texas, to which approximately 75 percent responded affirmatively.
Strait’s performance was striking in its secondary musical arrangements, however, as a rich variety of sounds were utilized underneath the predominant strumming. A steady drum tap echoed weightily through “I Hate Everything,” while the reverb-laden pedal steel on his cover of Merle Haggard’s “Seashores of Old Mexico” lent a haunting sparseness in the midst of a blur of honky tonk.
His big band also showed their capacity to create sober emotional gravity, as the gorgeous interplay between the two piano arrangement and violin on “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” said more than the deftest of storytellers ever could.
With the pretense that McEntire would eventually join Strait for a much-needed duet looming well past 11 p.m., the cascading monotony become too much for many in the audience. The crowd shed its numbers like a mangy dog does hair as no end, or variety, appeared in sight. Could Reba have made her reappearance eventually? I can’t answer that and frankly, didn’t care at that point. I, like many, became a casualty of boredom, checking out during a half-hearted “Give It Away.” Maybe it’s an atypical showing and Strait may well have earned his crown, but at some point, every cowboy loses his hat..