When you have close to 60 No. 1 hits to your name and a career spanning more than three decades, it’d be easy to phone it in on a “farewell” tour.
It’d be easy to play like an automaton through the songs that made you famous, smile, wave and then go home for the night.
Or, you could do what contemporary country legend George Strait did Friday night for an ecstatic crowd at the First Niagara Center: You could prove you’ve earned your title as the King of Country Music with every note.
Strait embodies country music. From his Wrangler jeans to his tucked-in, buttoned-up shirt to his scuffed cowboy boots, he is what people think of when they imagine the genre.
He backed up that well-deserved image with a fondly played set of some of his fans’ most beloved songs, taking them on a walk through his storied career with each song.
With selections spanning his first album in 1981 to 2011’s “Here for a Good Time,” Strait played every song like he was reconnecting with an old friend. He looked like he was truly happy to be there, and he welcomed his audience along for the ride.
Strait also surprised those in attendance with a touching show of generosity: He presented an injured soldier and his wife with the keys to a new home, food for a year from Walmart, a new TV and all of his albums. After that, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, or a heart he hadn’t won over.
Martina McBride opened for Strait, paving the way for his genuine, satisfying performance with one of her own.
A star in her own right, McBride shone on stage, rocking in stiletto heels and leather pants as she let her tremendous voice do the talking in a 15-song set. She had fun with her audience, bantering back and forth as she gave them such light-hearted hits as “My Baby Loves Me (Just the Way That I Am)” and got the parents in the audience roaring in approval at “Teenage Daughters.”
McBride also mixed up some surprising covers with her own work, sampling from both Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’ ” and “The First Cut is the Deepest,” popularized by Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow.
However, McBride is most in her element when belting the ballads that have become her calling card, her soaring voice giving every one power and passion.
“Do It Anyways,” “Blessed” and one of her oldest hits, “Independence Day,” showcased that power, and her performance of the emotional “Broken Wing” brought her to tears and the audience to its feet.
McBride also paired with Strait for two classic covers, one by Tammy Wynette and the other by Johnny Cash. With two such talented voices joining together, they could do no wrong.