Ambush in Austin

George Strait live

Friday, Jan. 28, 2005: My flu was coming on. Fever, cold sweats, caving joints – the bitter wind whipping the flags outside the Frank Erwin Center wasn’t helping matters.

Inside, whipped up a scene straight out When We Were Kings, the James Brown-soundtracked Muhammad Ali documentary immortalizing 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle. Last night, as events unfolded in similar fashion – 16,746 blood-hungry ticket holders engulfing the sold-out UT drum – Thrilla in Manilla, Ali and Joe Frazier’s heavyweight sequel in the Philippines the following year, pingponged through my much clearer head. The four-corner stage standing in the middle of Austin’s biggest concert venue focused all adulation to the center. When George Strait walked out onto it at 9:25pm – Jan. 10, 2008 – in his starched white shirt, not one hollering Texan doubted his championship form for one minute. If “Bob Wills Is Still the King” of the Lone Star State, then Strait’s commander-in-chief.

Kicking off his current tour here in the capital, Strait looked as though his sea legs weren’t quite all there yet. The spectacle remained the same – Roman Coliseum boxing match – so a fistful of song walkthroughs by the country music monarch went as unaccounted for as the sixth, seventh, and eighth beer down the gullet of the starched shirt next to me. Microphones at each corner of the stage rotated Strait at two tunes a pop. After a particularly strong number, Strait assumed a three-point stance: point to these rafters, pivot, point to those rafters, pivot, point at Longhorns coach Mack Brown in the first three rows stageside. Strait’s easy strut between mics was Big Cat.

“I was counting ‘em up today,” announced the man of few words at the three-quarter mark. “Been touring 20… [cough] eight years.” 90 minutes plus three encores, glided through by his 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band, could’ve been from U2 or Rolling Stones. Forever Straitman fiddler and local Gene Elders faced off with the head honcho more than once. “Hope we don’t leave any of your favorites out,” smiled Strait. “Hope you have favorites.” Sure: opener “She’ll Leave You With a Smile,” third slot “Check Yes or No,” and the setlist firestarter, No. 6, “Carrying Your Love With Me.” They came at three-minute intervals, Shea Stadium Beatlesque, accompanied by high-pitched encouragement: “Amarillo by Morning,” the piano and pedal steel-kissed “Honk If You Honky Tonk,” “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” Bruce Robison's million-seller “Wrapped,” “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” and show stopper “I Hate Everything.” Sandwiched in the encore triumvirate, Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” landed the knockout punch.

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