Here's an old Garth Brooks story worth hearing: In 1993, at the height of his fame, with four straight albums topping the Billboard 200 and a Time magazine cover still on the rack at the dentist office, Brooks and his band were weary of playing arena shows.
"I like what I've got but I miss what I had," he said.
So a man who was arguably the biggest musician in the world had his manager book him a night in a dingy little honky-tonk in Clovis, New Mexico, under the name Yukon Jack. Word spread, and the place packed up by the time he got to the hits.
Now, that show might not seem so novel today, when such ploys are routine because savvy marketers know the hubbub around such a show will boost sales for the five-night stand in L.A. And maybe it was a stunt then—you can't put anything past an entertainer like Brooks, who knows how to push America's buttons like few before him or since. But from the floor of the Moda Center, where Brooks is playing five shows this week as part of the tour that's now moved 2 million tickets, I'm inclined to say the man and his band really did miss the sweaty barrooms where he cut his teeth.
Today's Brooks wears baggy Wranglers, not cutting quite the dashing figure he did back when he was sprinting across stages in the days of live NBC specials. But Brooks, along with the veteran band he refers to as "we," emerges from the domestic life in Tulsa and a long stand in Vegas as a helluva entertainer. His new record might be called Man Against Machine, but Brooks still knows he gets good mileage off grabbing a middle-aged blond's zebra-printed iPhone and posing for a selfie from the stage.
And the packed-to-the-rafters crowd was overjoyed, getting loud with "Rodeo," which followed the opener, his current album's title track, and continuing for two-and-a-half hours, until coming to a close in time to get everyone hustled out of the arena so the people lined up for the late show could push through the doors. Even an extended round of competitive cheering by section was impressive, if only for the sheer volume of the response.
Brooks mostly stuck to the hits ("I'm like you—I paid my money, I want to hear the old stuff!") from "Papa Loved Mama" to "Fever," with a few forays into his new material offered with self-deprecating commentary that bordered on apology. No need to apologize: "People Loving People," his plea for world peace, is a good message for an arena full of possible Ted Cruz supporters. Preach on, brother Garth.
And the show's mid-set break for Brooks worked remarkably well. Trisha Yearwood came on to sing three hits and "Prizefighter," a song about battling breast cancer, set to video of ladies in pink New Balances and visors walking around small-town America. After a duet it was back to Brooks, who delivered "Friends in Low Places" and his original, now-somewhat-ironic hit, "I'm Much Too Young (to Feel this Damn Old)."
The best moment of all, though, for me, was "Unanswered Prayers," offered mostly as a sing-along, with crowd participation that was impressive in both ubiquity and quality. Maybe it's an early Sunday thing, but this seemed like a crowd packed with church choir types. In a New Mexico dive bar, I'd rather he get back to raising the rabble. But in an arena, it's hard to beat that many voices singing a song you love so well.