George Strait did his Minnesota fans a solid by not waiting until next year to make up his COVID-delayed summer concert at U.S. Bank Stadium, but the country music giant didn't do himself any favors.
"It's co-o-o-o-ld up here," the Texan-through-and-through good-naturedly complained early in his set Saturday night on the Vikings' home field — thankfully roofed in this case, although the bouncy acoustics were as troublesome ever.
The snow and gales of November may not have been to his liking, but semi-retirement seems to be suiting Strait just fine. In town for the first time since his farewell tour in 2013 — Minneapolis is one of only five cities to get him in 2021 — the 69-year-old singer looked fit and healthy in his rail-thin blue jeans. He still proved enduring as a top-drawing star and durable as a singer, too, performing more than 30 songs totaling over 2½ hours.
With more than 51,000 attendees, Saturday's sold-out gig turned out to be the Twin Cities' biggest concert of 2021 and second biggest in the Vikings stadium's five-year history (outdone only by Garth Brooks in 2018).
Granted, King George had quite a royal court of opening acts to help sell tickets, including last week's big winner (again) at the CMA Awards, Chris Stapleton, plus harmonious twang-pop quartet Little Big Town and Minnesota's own Caitlyn Smith.
A Cannon Falls native who's made a reputable name for herself in Nashville, Smith sadly missed the chance to impress a stadium full of home-state fans; most of the crowd was still stuck out in the snow navigating the long and confusing entry lines. The power in Smith's voice was unmistakable, though, even as it bounced around the notoriously echoey room (made worse by empty seats).
Little Big Town, which was one of the first music acts to contend with the Vikings' stadium (they warmed up for Luke Bryan in 2017's opening concert), also suffered through bad sound. The driving beat in the novelty hit "Pontoon" sounded like a sputtering boat motor.
At least the rich harmonies in the Alabama group's mellower and more meaningful tunes ("Better Man," "Girl Crush") came through clearly. So did the humor in LBT co-vocalist Karen Fairchild's banter between songs.
Recounting how much she and bandmate Kimberly Schlapman heard Strait's music while attending Samford University together, Fairchild quipped, "All the boys would make roll-in-the-haystack mixtapes, and it seemed like George was on every one of them."
Stapleton also talked about how honored he was to be opening for Strait. However, you could have easily mistaken the old-school but innovative Kentucky countryman's performance as a headlining set. Not only was it relatively long at 17 songs, it was just plain enthralling and electrifying — the hardest-rocking set that stadium has seen since Guns N' Roses played there in 2017. (No, I didn't forget the Rolling Stones were there last month.)
Highlights included: the rousing second number, "Parachute," which showed off Stapleton's gritty but soulful voice; a bluesy version of "Hard Livin'" with Willie Nelson's longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael in tow; the title track of last year's award-generating album "Starting Over," and a mash-up of Skynyrd's "Free Bird" with his own crescendoing epic "The Devil Named Music."
Strait and his veteran 11-member Ace in the Hole Band never shredded like Stapleton, of course. But they did tear through a marathon of mostly No. 1 country hits at an impressive pace, starting with the '90s-era openers "Write This Down" and "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" and peaking in the second half with "Amarillo by Morning" and "All My Ex's Live in Texas."
While it was largely a greatest-hits set you could've seen in 2013, Strait brought out his openers to add a couple special moments. Stapleton came first, trading verses and guitar licks in the perfectly paired Waylon Jennings cover "Waymore Blues." Then all four members of Little Big Town joined in to sing "You Look So Good in Love."
Strait also added a heavy emotional touch reflecting current and local headlines: Dedicating "The Weight of the Badge" to "all you people who wear a badge every day to protect," he showed footage of Minneapolis police and Minnesota State Patrol officers on the video screens as he sang — earning probably the biggest cheers of the night.
Perhaps not wanting to be entirely out-rocked by Stapleton, King George also threw in a decently cranking cover of Tom Petty's "You Wreck Me" near the end of his encore before saying farewell (again). That cold weather he alluded to early on certainly didn't keep the legendary Texan from warming up by show's end.