By Lynne Margolis
There’s almost nothing Texans like better than celebrating homegrown icons, from barbecue and bluebonnets to beloved musical talents. So it was an enlightened decision to enlist two of Texas’ most favorite sons, George Strait and Willie Nelson, to break in Austin’s new Moody Center arena – an event so momentous, it required two nights.
Strait, Nelson and the Randy Rogers Band held court on April 29 and 30 before capacity crowds of more than 15,000 each to mark the grand opening of the $375 million, 530,000 square-foot icon-in-the-making on the University of Texas campus.
The dates were even more celebratory because they took place on Nelson’s calendar-straddling birthday; he was born close to midnight on April 29, 1933, but his birth certificate reads April 30, so the legendary singer/songwriter claims both dates.
Of course, Strait led a “Happy Birthday” serenade to Willie after they performed a pair of duets. Strait wrote the first, “Sing One with Willie” with his son, George “Bubba” Strait Jr., and Nelson for the two country titans’ first appearance together – which, remarkably, didn’t happen until Jan. 12, 2019, at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The second was their April 29 moment on the center-set, four-point Moody stage, during which they also duetted on “Pancho & Lefty,” one of Nelson’s signature songs.
Nelson had already performed his hour-long set by then, and the audience wasn’t expecting his return. They let out a collective roar of approval as Strait called Nelson to the stage, knowing they were witnessing a bit of history – one made more significant by the fact that Nelson, now 89, just lost his older sister and longtime Family Band pianist, Bobbie, in March, and as his recent albums make clear, he’s aware his days of singing “On the Road Again” are dwindling.
Opener Rogers made a point of acknowledging how special the night was to him personally. As his band neared the end of their 20-minute set, the red-dirt/college country artist said, “I’m still a little shocked. If you’d have told little 15-year-old me that I’d be on the same stage as two of my heroes, and one of ‘em on their birthday, I’d have called you crazy.”
Both Strait and Rogers honed their chops at Cheatham Street Warehouse, a little San Marcos, Texas, honky-tonk that served as a songwriting training ground for some of country and Americana’s most beloved artists. Strait, who played his first gigs with his Ace in the Hole band at Cheatham Street while attending Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University), always makes a point of mentioning the beloved spot during Austin performances. Rogers, who recorded his first album there, actually bought it five years ago from the children of late owner Kent Finlay.
Between Cheatham Street and the Moody Center, Strait managed to rack up 60 No. 1 hits — more than any other artist in any genre — and came to define mainstream country. He sang several during his nearly 2-hour and 20-minute, 31-song set, ambling from one corner to the next every few songs while his 11-member band played the center areas.
“It’s really great to be here tonight. I want to thank everybody for coming to this beautiful new arena,” Strait said after singing “Ocean Front Property.”
Though semi-retired since his 2014 “The Cowboy Rides Away” tour, the 69-year-old looks as if he hasn’t aged a day since — and neither has his baritone, which fits the mid-tempo ballads he favors like a comfy sweater.
“I still feel 25 most of the time,” he announced before singing “Troubadour,” a nostalgic song accompanied by a video montage of snapshots depicting his life and career. It provided another of many heartwarming moments during his set; earlier, during “Amarillo By Morning,” a signature song, adorable pictures from his younger years flashed as he played.
It was hard not to get a little emotional when he performed “I’ll Always Remember You,” his riding-away song, even though it wound up not being his swan song. In fact, when he played it at UT’s Erwin Center in 2014, that wound up not even being his last visit to that building, which he headlined for its 40th-anniversary celebration in 2018. Moody Center is replacing that now 45-year-old, 16,734-capacity arena, known to generations of concertgoers as “the Drum.”
Nelson headlined several disaster-aid fund-raisers there; during his Moody performance, he wore a T-shirt depicting a blue-and-yellow fist surrounded by the words, “I stand with Ukraine.”
Riding a golf cart to the stage, Nelson offered a simple “How y’all doin’?” before launching into his standard set-opener, “Whiskey River.” His vocals seemed tentative at first, and so did the volume. For a good part of his set, he was nearly drowned out by the chatter of concertgoers who came to hear Strait. But he got progressively more engaged as sections began filling, and when he sang “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” he growled out the word “Mammas” with more force each time it came around, giving the cleverly sarcastic song even more humor.
He seems to take particular pleasure in singing his more amusing tunes, like “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and his set-closer, “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” But on this night, he and his Family band earned a standing ovation for “You Were Always on my Mind.” Nelson hit another vocal peak with “Georgia on my Mind,” and made his “Funny How Time Slips Away” arrangement even jazzier than usual. And when he seemed a little winded, as on “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” he leaned on his beloved Trigger, his fingers still flying across its nylon strings with Segovia-like dexterity.
Nelson played only one new song, “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die,” the lead single from A Beautiful Time. He prefaced it with the simple introduction, “Here’s a Chris Stapleton and Rodney Crowell song. It’s on my new album, coming out on my birthday. That’s today!”
And what a birthday it was — for Nelson and Austin’s newest venue.