MINNEAPOLIS — For a couple of hours Saturday night, one of the most consistently successful musicians of any genre held a sold-out U.S. Bank Stadium crowd in the palm of his hand — or, rather, in the back pocket of his boot-cut Wranglers.
George Strait, the King of Country, played the metro for the first time in more than eight years and the pent-up demand was clear. Some 51,030 people showed up, the second-largest crowd ever for a USBS concert after Garth Brooks, whose pair of 2019 shows drew a combined attendance of more than 140,000. (It’s worth noting, though, that Brooks played on an in-the-round stage, allowing him to sell seats around the entire bowl.)
Strait, 69, announced he was retiring from full-scale touring back in 2013, but noted that he’d still perform live and release new music, just at a slower pace. He has lived up to that promise and typically plays a handful of Vegas gigs and a few massive one-off shows each year.
The schedule seems to be agreeing with him, as he was in top form Saturday night, tackling more than 30 songs backed by his crackerjack 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band. To be sure, Strait isn’t really a showman, at least not in the sense of the aforementioned Brooks or the Rolling Stones, who played USBS last month.
As usual, Strait didn’t really talk much to the audience. Early on, he noted “It’s cold up here. Damn.” Later, he gave a shout-out to former Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer, who was in the crowd. Strait also didn’t offer much theatrics beyond standing there and singing. One can imagine if Brooks or the Stones had done the same, concertgoers would have been demanding refunds.
So what’s the guy’s appeal? His songs. For three decades, Strait maintained a constant presence on country radio, scoring more than 80 Top 10 hits, more than half of which went all the way to No. 1. And judging by the crowd, plenty of people still love all those songs, which largely avoided trends and gimmicks of the time and sound just as straightforward and honest now as they did back in the day.
While longtime followers will surely note a few favorites Strait skipped, they did get to hear a generous and deep selection of songs from throughout his career, including “I Saw God Today,” “Check Yes or No,” “She’ll Leave You with a Smile,” “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” “Somewhere Down in Texas,” “Amarillo by Morning,” “Troubadour,” “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and the song that’s become his retirement anthem, “The Cowboy Rides Away.”
If Strait’s solidly entertaining performance wasn’t enough, he gave fans something like a mini festival. Gates opened at 3 p.m. and newcomer (and Minnesota native Caitlyn Smith) wore Prince Purple for her opening set. The venerable Little Big Town, country music’s answer to Fleetwood Mac, followed.
But the big news was the presence of Chris Stapleton, who just took home four (or six, if you count his production nods) Country Music Association Awards Wednesday night, more than any other act this year. Noting that he was “proud to be on this bill,” the 43-year-old Kentucky native delivered passionate outlaw country rockers to a rapt audience that cheered whenever he played one of his hits (“Parachute,” “Broken Halos,” “Starting Over,” “Millionaire”).
Stapleton and his nimble band played pretty much the same set he’s been doing on his current headlining tour, minus three acoustic songs and the encore. Not that anyone was complaining about a truly memorable evening of country music performed by two of the genre’s major talents.