After eight years of restless retirement, Garth Brooks kicked off his potentially-five-year-long stay at the Wynn Hotel’s 1,500-seat Encore Theater in Las Vegas this weekend, and for all those who remember him mostly as the guy in the picture to the left here, his comeback performance is an absolute revelation. The Music Mix was in the audience for the early set on Saturday, and if we were worried that this flashpot-loving showman might aim for Sigfried-and-Roy-like levels of spectacle during his time on the Strip, those fears dissipated the moment Brooks stepped on stage: Dressed in jeans, a hoodie, a baseball cap, and a headset mic (some things never change), he looked more like your burly neighbor on football Sundays, breaking out the guitar in the den for a singalong after supper. The “living-room show” has long deserved a Vegas comeback — but no one thought Brooks would be the dude to try it. Or that he’d be the perfect guy to pull it off.
Stool, spotlight, mic stand, bottle of water: Those were the only items on stage when Brooks appeared promptly at 8 p.m. and announced the impending late show meant he wouldn’t waste a minute — not even for sound check. Hotelier Steve Wynn lured the dedicated father to these gigs in part by buying him a private jet, and not four hours previously, Brooks said, he’d been in Memphis at his oldest child’s soccer game. So the biggest-selling act in the history of country music just went ahead and took a second to set his guitar levels right then and there by playing the first verse of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” He stopped before the chorus and looked up at the sound booth. “You all right up there?” he asked. Then he smiled, and flipped his voice to that of an announcer. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned. “Garth! Brooks!”
Other outlets have reported that Brooks requested specific set list details not be divulged by journalists so as to save the surprise for audiences to come. But I didn’t attend that press conference, and, in any case, I can’t see how one could possibly replicate or ruin a show that included an hour of Brooks taking requests from his overjoyed audience. With the exception of the woman who wanted “Friends in Low Places” long before its big-finish time — have you no sense of pacing, madam? — every fan got to hear the song they wanted, regardless of whether or not it was a hit. (“In Lonesome Dove”!!!) It also didn’t matter whether or not Brooks could play the requested song on guitar, a hazard of solo performance which led to both humanizing screwups and a few a capella numbers, one of which — an unfinished roar through his version of Billy Joel’s “Shameless” — brought the house down. It wasn’t the first standing ovation he’d received over the course of the 90 minute show, but it was by far the most spontaneous. “Revelations are what life’s all about,” Brooks said, after the crowd quieted down, “and I just had one: What the hell am I paying the band for?”
Brooks’s riskiest move comes in crafting the Wynn show as something of a journey through the artists who shaped his sound, which means he asks his own work to stand alongside that of men like Seger, Merle Haggard, Cat Stevens, and the Georges, Jones and Strait. Perhaps surprisingly, the Brooks oeuvre — whether the songs were written by or for the Oklahoma native — more than holds its own. The night’s strongest sequence was his rhapsody on personal icon James Taylor; when “Sweet Baby James” led into Garth’s “The River,” the worshipful audience for the most part stopped breathing. Later in the show, of course, the enduring power of the Brooks canon inspired a lot less worship and a lot more participation from the crowd, who nailed the final “…ohhhh-waw-waw” vocal tic from “Rodeo” so perfectly they cracked their host up. “In ‘Shameless,’ I didn’t have to play,” Brooks whooped. “These songs, I didn’t have to sing! This might be the easiest gig of my life!”
It’s rare we get to know our superstars as anything more than the people they want us to see, but in agreeing to this return, Brooks seems to have wisely decided that when all alone on a stage with nothing but a guitar between you and the world, openness is the only way to go. He was funny, self-deprecating, genuinely interested in the wants and needs of his audience, and showed no signs of the delusions of bizarro grandeur that led to some of his more controversial late-’90s career decisions. (Yes, the lone Chris Gaines request fell on deaf ears.) He also allowed himself one very special guest: Wife Trisha Yearwood, who briefly joined him for what should be made a regular bit. The two tried out some Sonny and Cher-style banter as he tried to find the right key for “She’s In Love With the Boy” – “It’s in E-flat,” she said helpfully as Brooks struggled with his capo, “but I know that’s not an option”; “I got this guitar on sale,” he fired back — and as they locked eyes for the harmonies on “Walkaway Joe,” it had the sexy, simmering heat of Springsteen and Scialfa. Note to Tim and Faith: matching fragrances may no longer cut it.
One got the idea that the crowd gathered for this weekend’s debut would have happily paid $125 to watch Brooks eat a sandwich from the opposing sideline of the aforementioned Memphis soccer game, but their enthusiasm and gratitude were by no means out of place. Best of all, the show’s unstructured storytelling format means its potential for evolution over the next five years is more or less unlimited, which makes repeat business a guarantee, and Steve Wynn the happiest man in Vegas today. But what do you think, Mixers? Who’s already got tickets — and who plans to go buy some (as soon as they add more shows to the sold-out run)? Will country music be helped or harmed by the (semi-) return of Brooks? And when the house lights came up, what songs would you request?
(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)
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Photo Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images