George Strait set the mold for today's brand of male country stardom, in which Nashville Olympus is populated by cowboy-hatted Greek gods bearing modest expressive gifts wrapped in reassuring, companionable twangs.
Strait has had an unruffled 13-year run of success, and don't bet that he won't still be on top when his many chiseled, Stetsoned imitators have faded. It is a matter of concern in country circles that the '90s-vintage crop of new hot sellers will prove not to be enduring stars but transient meteors who quickly tail off. One reason that Strait will extend his run (other than that he still has his looks and a very good touring band) is that he knows how to treat his fans.
He had little to offer the 19,400 who packed Anaheim Arena on Friday, because his voice had come up hoarse. A makeup concert, which will take place May 15 at 7:30 p.m., apparently already had been set before Strait went on stage.
In the same situation, most stars simply would have a house announcer tell those in the crowd to save their stubs and come back on the appointed night. Strait broke the word about the postponement himself. And, since everybody had shown up and paid for parking, he decided to "give it a shot anyway." Between profuse apologies for the condition of his voice, he gave his fans a 30-minute, nine-song performance that amounted to a bonus they'll fondly remember.
Never mind the scratches, cracks and creaks issuing from a singer who normally is the epitome of smooth control; Strait was the most game Texan we've seen since the day Emmitt Smith beat the New York Giants when he should have been in traction. The crowd, stoked from the start, showed even greater appreciation of their hero after learning that he wasn't at his best. May 15--which falls three days before Strait's 42nd birthday--figures to be a love-fest.
Strait sounded reasonably steady in some passages, but his voice faltered regularly, especially on lower notes. When it gave out on a high note at the end of "The Cowboy Rides Away," he knew he had gone as far as he could.
But he stuck around for an additional 15 minutes or so, autographing souvenir white hats, T-shirts and even somebody's cowboy boot before leaving the stage. His eight-piece Ace in the Hole band, which features good pickers on guitars, fiddle and piano, kept playing chorus after chorus of "Cowboy Rides Away" until it began to sound like the never-ending fade to "Layla."
In one respect, the program was no great bonus for fans. Strait played in-the-round, a format that isn't good for country music. In country, there is a premium on the singer's ability to turn a song into a story, and it is practically impossible to get the full impact of a tale when the teller's face can't be seen at least half the time. In-the-round does afford more people a closer (if fleeting) look. But it's better to put the stage at one end of the hall and to set up a decent video screen so the people at the back can see close-ups.
Of course, that entails some financial cost to artist and promoter: Seating ranges from about 11,000 to 17,000 if the stage is at one end of the arena. With the stage in the middle, the capacity tops 19,000.
Strait isn't known as a dynamic performer. Clubs like the Crazy Horse and the Coach House would be in no danger of having their walls blown out by his low-key approach. Like many of the "new country" singers who have followed him, he seems to hold moderation as a virtue, singing material that, whether rueful or upbeat, falls within temperate emotional and thematic bounds.
Such work can be pleasant. Strait's latest album, "Easy Come Easy Go" displays his sure command of traditional country styles and features some solid, enjoyable material. But moderation pales beside the unvarnished anguish, bitterness, wild-eyed abandon or fierce, crusty pride you can get on a good night from such great old-line country singers as George Jones, Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash.
Cash's new album, "American Recordings," features nothing but his lone voice, his own simple, self-strummed guitar, and his gritty willingness to probe depths and extremes of emotional experience. Such stark, uncompromising music is something today's mainstream country artists typically shy from in their eagerness to offer a smooth ride and easy reassurance.
Opening act Clay Walker follows in Strait's moderate footsteps, even though his sound leans more toward rock and his stage show included eager-to-please posturing that Strait never would go for.
The 24-year-old from Texas has chiseled looks, a cowboy hat, tight jeans and a willingness to shake what's in them. He also is a capable singer with a hit debut album. But he lacks the distinctive sound that would allow him to stand apart from any number of momentarily successful country singers.
He was at his best with such wistful, mid-tempo anthems as "Dreaming With My Eyes Open" and "Live Until I Die," which have a mildly philosophic cast to them. He filled out his 40-minute set with unadventurous versions of unadventurous cover material: Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." The Presley tune was just an excuse to belt out an oldie while rotating below the belt; it didn't try to recapture the clenched emotions of the original. Of course, it's hard to be dramatic when you can't focus on communicating because you're too busy scampering about, giving people on four sides a glimpse of yourself.
Like a lot of artists who don't mind hearing cheap applause, Walker inserted the words "California" and/or "Anaheim" to numerous song verses that mentioned a setting or place name. The audience roared at the flattery. They always do, in a conditioned response I don't understand.
Like Walker, I could use a few easy plaudits myself. So here goes: Anaheim, Santa Ana, Huntington Beach, Fullerton, San Clemente, Mission Viejo, and the rest of Orange County, this review was just for you. LEMME HEAR YOU, OUT THERE!