Legend, newcomer give country fans a treat

By Marc Hirsh
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2009
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MANSFIELD - In the hour and 40 minutes that George Strait was on the Comcast Center stage on Saturday, he sang a grand total of 27 songs. The way the math works out, even if all of them had been country chart-toppers - which they were not - he still wouldn't have covered even half of his No. 1 hits. Too bad, everyone who hoped to hear "All My Ex's Live in Texas": such is the (ironic) disappointment you face when your man's successes wildly outpace acceptable concert length.

In fact, it wasn't until the show was three-quarters over that the Academy of Country Music's newly minted Artist of the Decade remembered to fit in a few songs from his most recent album (last year's "Troubadour"). Until then, he sampled liberally from the 24 others he has under his belt, from the swaggering sexual emergency worker of "The Fireman" to slower heartbreak of "I Ain't Her Cowboy Anymore."

With little more than a toothy grin and laconic body language, he relied on the confidence that he could sell his material without doing much more than coming out and being George Strait. It didn't matter that he hung on his acoustic guitar more than he actually played it, and the major-key lightness of "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" was no impediment to him wringing the sadness out of the lyric's disintegrating romance.

Strait could have occasionally played things a little less safe. Divorce song "Give It Away" came off sturdy and upbeat, rather than as a bitter slow burn, and his 11-person Ace in the Hole Band could have easily shed at least three musicians without losing much but the mushy roar that threatened to overpower Strait at times.

But Strait mostly slipped into his role with the comfort of an old pair of jeans (though his actual jeans seemed fairly new). While Strait sang "Troubadour" toward the end, video screens featured pictures of the singer both young and less-young. He was never old.

Julianne Hough opened with a slightly twangy, dance-toned update of mid-'90s Celine Dion-style pop, but her lack of seasoning as a performer showed in how hard she was working to seem spirited. She was followed by Blake Shelton, whose easy, charismatic swagger translated to soulful ballads as well as good-natured cautionary barroom tales. His solo-acoustic performance of the song was a happy bonus.

GEORGE STRAIT With Blake Shelton and Julianne Hough

At: Comcast Center, Saturday

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