When country legend George Strait announced in 2012 that he was retiring from the arduous business of world touring after one final jaunt, his last show seemed like a dot in the distance.
That dot is now in the rearview mirror following the Texan’s superb, and likely final, New England concert at Gillette Stadium Saturday.
With just a few video screens sharing archival photos and his aptly named Ace in the Hole band providing nimble backup, the show was short on flash and long on songs — over 30 in two hours and 20 minutes — as the soft-spoken Strait did what he always does: tell plain-spoken stories in a classic country style, transforming the stadium into one big honky-tonk (albeit a very chilly one).
Given his massive success — they don’t call him King George for nothing — Strait was faced with a daunting task. With 60 number one hits, many more album cuts that might be a particular fan’s favorite, and new songs vying for live reads, making a set list is probably a giant puzzle. Strait managed to fit the pieces together to the seeming satisfaction of the appreciative crowd of 55,863 country music fans, who happily sang along to almost every tune.
Strait ambled his way through his 30-plus-year career catalog offering up a jukebox-full of hits from boot stompers to slow dances (of which many couples in the crowd took full advantage) to classic covers including a rousing take on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Highlights included the bouncy tale of lifelong love “Check Yes or No,” the weeping pedal steel of “That’s What Breaking Hearts Do,” the country noir murder tale “Arkansas Dave,” and the rollicking comic observations of “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”
A mid-set interlude in which a veteran and his wife were awarded a new home, groceries for a year, and the entire Strait catalog by Military Warriors Support Foundation was a touching moment that drew a huge ovation from the crowd.
Openers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill also earned an audience with the king, each joining Strait for two duets. McGraw took verses and harmonized on “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” and a sublime version of “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” while Hill joined in for “A Showman’s Life” and “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together.”
Both were equally gobsmacked at the opportunity to sing with one of their heroes, Hill so much so that she briefly faltered during “Let’s Fall,” declaring “I’m just so nervous, Lord forgive me!” She recovered beautifully, and Strait said that singing with the husband and wife was a huge check off his bucket list. Hill quipped that she was happy that Strait even knew her name.
Appropriately, Strait closed out the night with the song that gave the tour its title, “The Cowboy Rides Away,” summing up the mood nicely: “Oh the last goodbye’s the hardest one to say / And this is where the cowboy rides away.”
McGraw and Hill took their own turns in the spotlight earlier, with McGraw getting the lion’s share of stage time to roll through his own formidable number of hits including “Live Like You Were Dying,” “Indian Outlaw,” and “I Like It, I Love It.” Hill joined her husband for a couple of duets and took center stage for her bopper “This Kiss” as well as a torrid mash-up of Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.