George Strait presents himself in his music as a man of his word, a paragon of constancy in a world besieged by change.
Yet from the moment he appeared onstage Saturday night at Staples Center, the veteran country star seemed to be looking for a way out of a commitment he’d made.
The show was the local stop on Strait’s Cowboy Rides Away tour, billed as the final trek in a hugely successful career that’s stretched across four decades and produced 60 No. 1 singles on a variety of charts.
At a news conference announcing the tour in 2012, he said he wanted to retire from the road before audiences stopped showing up. And last year, he ended his album “Love Is Everything” with “When the Credits Roll,” about taking stock of one’s life after “the curtain comes down.”
Two songs into his set at Staples, though, Strait told the crowd he couldn’t believe the concert Saturday was his first visit to the downtown arena.
“Hopefully, it won’t be the last time we see you,” he added, just one of several signs that Strait, who’s scheduled to wrap the tour in June with a gig for about 100,000 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, might already be rethinking his decision.
And why shouldn’t he? Nothing about this masterful 2½-hour performance suggested that the 61-year-old Texas native, known as the King of Country, was ready to hang up his black-felt cowboy hat.
Dressed, as always, in snug blue jeans and a crisp button-down shirt, Strait led his 11-piece band through an expertly paced survey of his hits, from “Unwound,” the lead track from his 1981 major-label debut, to “I Got a Car,” which he described as “a brand-new record on the radio.”
The songs pledged the kind of dependability in a man that Strait delivered as a performer, each tune a handsomely sung, neatly conceived story with clever musical touches (like the rolling groove in “River of Love” or the ersatz Spanish guitar in “Blame It on Mexico”) designed to deepen the song’s narrative.
Strait was using those stories to preserve the air of mystery that’s long obscured his offstage existence; his brand of celebrity is distinct from that of successors such as Blake Shelton and Keith Urban, who’ve embraced reality TV as a means of giving audiences even more of themselves.
But that didn’t mean Saturday’s show lacked emotion or dynamics. In “Drinkin’ Man,” Strait slowed the tempo for an alcoholic’s lament full of defeat, while the gorgeous “You Look So Good in Love” felt like his version of blue-eyed soul. (He even did a low-voiced spoken bit à la Barry White.)
In “I Believe,” which he called a “testament of faith” inspired by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the music went quieter still; Strait was almost inaudible as he sang about “26 angels looking down from above.”
Elsewhere, though, he toughened the lush romance of “How ’Bout Them Cowgirls” and put over a sly swagger for “Give It Away,” about a rocky separation.
And he drove his band hard in a zippy take on “Jackson,” popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter, for which Strait was joined by Martina McBride, who opened Saturday’s show with a solid but comparatively unremarkable set.
Toward the end of the concert, Strait did a stretch of songs -- “I’ll Always Remember You,” “Troubadour,” “Give It All We Got Tonight” -- heavy with reflections on good times past, as though he were working toward the farewell he’d advertised.
But then he left the stage, returned and knocked out five more tunes, including a fierce “Folsom Prison Blues” and a swinging, completely assured rendition of one of his signatures, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”
It didn’t sound like a conclusion at all.
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times