In January, I had the opportunity to see a musical legend perform. Country singer George Strait has announced that he will be retiring from touring, though he has not announced a retirement from recording new music. His farewell tour is scheduled to last more than a year, with the final concert to occur in Arlington, Texas this summer. One of his scheduled stops was in Austin, Texas in January, 2014. Due to a friend who joined his fan club specifically to be eligible for early ticket sales, I was able to attend this concert. We had been cautioned by the person at the front desk at the hotel where we were staying that traffic was predicted to be very bad and to leave ourselves plenty of time for travel to the venue, despite being within just a few miles of the concert. It was held at the Frank Irwin Center on the University of Texas campus in downtown Austin. The Frank Irwin Center is a smaller venue, the size of a traditional college basketball stadium, not a huge stadium. The seats we had were high at the top section, but because of the size of the stadium, the view was acceptable. The stadium had no dedicated parking, though there were nearby garages and several police officers directing traffic, so that getting to the venue was not difficult. The people moving from the garages to the concert all had a jovial air, and even the scalpers looking to buy or sell tickets and the young men selling bootleg concert t-shirts seemed to contribute to the overall jovial atmosphere.
While George Strait was the main performer in the concert, he had an additional opening act featured as well: Jason Aldean. I had heard of Jason Aldean, but knew little about him other than the fact that he is a country performer. Aldean's opening act was set to begin at 7pm, with no indication of when he would stop performing. We had our refreshments and were seated before Aldean began his performance. We were seated next to a group of young women who were very enthusiastic about Aldean's performance, which made me anxious to hear what he said. However, Aldean did not start at the start time on the ticket, but, instead, came on almost 20 minutes late. This may seem like an insignificant detail, but things like that bother me and I found myself irritated at the delay. Furthermore, I took that time period to people-watch. In addition to the incessant snapping of selfies, in which I participated, I realized that people were consuming huge amounts of alcohol. I associate concerts with drinking and expected to see people who were intoxicated. I did not expect to see people who were, literally, falling down drunk before the concert even began. Several rows below us, my friend and I saw a drunk middle-aged woman throw her arms around her friend, sloshing the contents of her drink onto a man below her. She then tried to get the attention of someone on the lower level by lifting her shirt and dancing, before taking to the steps and stumbling down them, falling on a person below her. While she appeared to be really enjoying herself, her antics clearly bothered people and were detracting from their experience.
The falling-down drunk woman is relevant, because Aldean's performance was similar to her act. Almost every song he sang featured drinking like it was both a profession and a pastime rolled into one bad verse. His voice was passable, though not incredible, and when he covered songs by other performers, he paled in comparison to the original performer. However, it would have been possible to enjoy his performance if he had concentrated on singing. Instead, between his song performances, he would stop and patter about drinking, encouraging people to get so drunk that they were throwing up the next day. Honestly, it detracted from the music so much that I could not assess his performance. It left me feeling as if I were at a bad fraternity party and that I was surrounded by people who were so concerned about the appearance of having a good time that they were not having a good time.
It also left me with an ugly feeling of envy and selfishness. I am not a wealthy person and the expense involved in purchasing those tickets and traveling to the concert was significant. I found myself wondering how people could have so much spare money that they could easily waste a few hundred dollars apiece on an experience and then try their best to drink so much that they would not remember it. I became suspicious of Aldean; it seemed to me that a performer who was confident in his ability to entertain would want his audience aware enough to enjoy his performance. I have been to many, many concerts with audiences that were as intoxicated or using some other substances and have never before felt like it detracted from the music. It was the way that Aldean participated in it that made me feel disgusted and resulted in me enjoying his performance less than I have ever enjoyed any performance of live music. Whatever that magical transporting element of live music is, he somehow managed to deplete his live show of every single particle of it. When his part of the concert ended, I felt relief, and hoped that Strait's performance would be what I expected from him.
Strait came out and performed so many of his songs that I lost count. The first thing I registered was amazement. Strait has not only been performing for my entire lifetime, but the lifetime of my parents, as well. Many older performers seem to be dated caricatures of themselves, even if they are still capable of putting on a good show. For example, the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith still make amazing rock music and give great concert performances, but they do appear to be in costume in their rock-star clothing on their retirement-age bodies. It is visually off-putting. Strait wore the same outfit he has worn for years to perform: starched Wrangler jeans, a button-down cowboy shirt, a cowboy hat, a pair of jeans, and a big belt buckle. However, it did not seem like a costume on him. It seemed like something you might see a man his age wear just about anywhere, if you lived in a small Texas town. In other words, it seemed authentic. It made me feel like I was his guest in a smaller experience. That, instead of being one of thousands of screaming fans in a stadium, maybe I was at the Broken Spoke or some other legendary country music venue, watching an intimate performance. In fact, this sense of intimacy was strong. The crowd, though it remained enthusiastic for his performance, seemed to settled down and settle in, remaining excited to hear him sing, but no longer anxious.
Strait's catalog of songs is extensive and a number of them are song that I refer to as "storytelling" songs, which are popular in country music. These songs tell a story about an interaction between people. They pull one into the emotion of the song, allowing one to visualize an entire backstory vignette when they listen to the song. In fact, while it seems like just about everything Strait has ever recorded has topped some type of chart, his most enduring hits are of this storytelling variety, and when he would sing them, the audience would sing along and, at some of them, almost seem contemplative. The songs set the tone for the entire audience. It was captivating and made me aware, not so much of the power of the music, but of the power of his charisma.
One of his most noted song is a one called "The Chair." It is a storytelling song that has a man using the pretense that a woman has sat in his chair to introduce himself to her. They spend the evening at the bar together and, at the end of the night, he confesses that it was not his chair. The song is literally what the man would be saying to this woman throughout the evening, such as asking to buy her a drink and then asking her to dance. What was amazing was how the atmosphere of the song- frail and emerging romance, the nervous hesitation that a person has whenever approaching a new person with a romantic interest, how one might admit a little white lie that was told to further such an interest- was all conveyed perfectly with in the context of the song. The whole audience seemed to feel that nervous magical feeling, as if we were collectively poised on the brink of a first kiss after the end of a first date.
What was even more remarkable was how Strait could change the atmospheric tone of the concert…