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Song after song: Texas legend George Strait serenades his first ACL Fest crowd with decades of hits

George Strait performs at the Ladybird stage of ACL Fest on Friday October 1 2021. Dave Creaney // American Statesman

“We’ve got a lot of songs to play for you tonight, but we’re kind of limited on time,” George Strait announced to the sizable crowd that had filled the east end of Zilker Park for the Texas country legend’s two-hour set closing the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s first night.

Two hours might seem like a fairly wide window, especially at a festival where most acts get half that time. But when you’ve had more than 40 songs that hit the top of Billboard’s country chart, there’s just not going to be time for all of them.

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Strait satisfied fans in his first-ever ACL Fest performance with a 29-song set that checked off a lot of those chart-toppers, plus some deeper cuts and a few intriguing covers. In terms of total songs, that’s up there with the longest ACL Fest sets ever, thanks to Strait’s no-frills approach of mostly cranking out three-minute hit after three-minute hit, with fairly limited banter and no long solos or jams. (In recent memory, only Paul McCartney’s two 31-song sets in 2018 surpass Strait’s total, though Sir Paul had an extra 15 minutes.)

Backed by his 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band that’s dominated by Central Texas musicians, Strait strode onstage to strains of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” before kicking in to Rodney Crowell’s “Stars on the Water.” He followed with two top-10 fan-favorites (“I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” “Here for a Good Time”) and a hat-trick of No. 1 smashes (“I Saw God Today,” “Check Yes or No,” “Carried Away.”)

The first curveball was the next song, Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty”; Strait’s version hewed closer to the Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard 1983 hit version. A few minutes later, he tipped his hat to Waylon Jennings with “Waymore’s Blues (Part II).” Strait saved arguably the coolest cover for the encore, asking the crowd, “We got any Tom Petty fans out there?” before launching into “You Wreck Me.”

Overall, the set stayed pretty close to a Bahamas hurricane relief concert Strait played in 2019 at ACL Live, his most recent Austin appearance. The song selection was almost identical to a Las Vegas concert six weeks ago. Strait “retired” with 2014’s “The Cowboy Rides Away” tour (playing the Erwin Center on that jaunt), but he’s continued to book occasional appearances, having played about 50 dates since the “Cowboy Rides Away” finale in Dallas in June 2014.

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With rain threats ultimately dodged almost completely — a few drops fell in the early part of Strait’s set, but nothing remotely requiring a poncho — Strait seemed delighted with the festival's atmosphere. “Whoever thought this thing up, we ought to give them a medal,” he remarked early on. “Man, this is great.”

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A classic country music “man of the people,” Strait is at his best when bonding with his fans, as on 2011’s “I’ll Always Remember You,” an ode to those who’ve stuck with him through the decades. Visually, Friday's most joyous moment came during “How ’Bout Them Cowgirls,” when the jumbotron cameras scanned the audience for close-ups of women (and their beaus) singing along with huge smiles on their faces. (Good timing, too, as it proved a nice bounce-back from the show’s lowest point, a song called “Codigo” that’s essentially an ad for a Tequila company Strait invested in.)

More big hits followed — his 1983 breakthrough “Amarillo By Morning,” 1985’s emotional “The Chair,” and of course the encore kickoff “All My Exes Live in Texas” — before the cowboy rode away with the song by that name just before 10 p.m. He waved and bowed to the crowd graciously, walking the width of the stage a couple of times while the band played on. They’ll do it all again next Friday — same fest time, same fest location.

SET LIST

(Walk-on instrumental: Deep in the Heart of Texas)

1. Stars on the Water

2. I Can Still Make Cheyenne

3. Here for a Good Time

4. I Saw God Today

5. Check Yes or No

6. Carried Away

7. Pancho & Lefty

8. It Just Comes Natural

9. She’ll Leave You With A Smile

10. Waymore’s Blues (Part II)

11. I Ain’t Her Cowboy Anymore

12. Arkansas Dave

13. Give It Away

14. Every Little Honky Tonk Bar

15. Somewhere Down in Texas

16. The Weight of the Badge

17. Codigo

18. How Bout Them Cowgirls

19. Amarillo By Morning

20. The Chair

21. Fireman

22. Run

23. We’ll Always Remember You

24. Troubadour

25. Unwound

Encore:

26. All My Exes Live in Texas

27. Take Me To Texas

28. You Wreck Me

29. The Cowboy Rides Away