June 26, 2015 (early show)
Garth Brooks has gone nuclear. Not many concerts these days require AC/DC as a walk-to-the-car nightcap to take the edge off, but Friday’s first show of his eight at Toyota Center — spread across this weekend and next, with the second to follow barely a week after this one let out — sure did. His drummer Mike Palmer played from inside a cage designed to look like a spinning atom, which did in fact spin around during the cover of Aerosmith’s “Fever” that opened the first encore (thus putting Tommy Lee to shame). Around this time, about 75 percent of the concerts I’ve seen in the past five years dropped by a full letter grade or two. Two hours and 15 minutes after the show began, Brooks had more energy than when he started, and the crowd was still giving it right back to him. The place was jacked.
A sampling of his quotes throughout the evening:
*** “If my big ass is gonna get through eight shows in this city, you gotta help me out!”
*** “So this is how it’s gonna be…If you’re ready to raise hell, you came to the right place!”
*** “Most of the night, this guitar…it ain’t even on, but for this one it is” (before “Friends In Low Places”)??“You wanna go higher than that?!”
*** “Give me everything you’ve got left, Houston!”
The opening had a very Terminator vibe, with metallic clanging, smoke plumes and noirish keyboard noises built around Mutt Lange-ish opener “Man Vs. Machine,” a hard-rock blast that finished up with the band facing off against a light rigging dangling from the ceiling like they were all being sucked into a tractor beam. Wisely, that was about all the special-effects theater that was necessary, although the “rain” effect on the lone video screen during “The Thunder Rolls” was also nice, and the Stars and Stripes graphic during new armed-services tribute “All American Kid” will get an even bigger pop at the July 4 shows. But really, two dozen-plus songs delivered at full tilt by an ensemble where the “rookie” (fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly) has only been in the band for 21 years was all the spectacle Brooks and company needed.
Brooks, who was visibly red-faced by the second song, “Rodeo,” telegraphs and pantomimes every line of every song. Every move, no matter how tiny, is the work of a seasoned pro: the looks, the sprinting, the finger-waves to the audience, how he spreads his arms wide when he’s singing about flying, or even the way he cozies up to a certain band member who is taking a solo. He performs. When he got a little winded after “Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up)” (and who wouldn’t?), he stalled by pulling the old “finger pistol” trick with different sections of the crowd. It’s hard to look away, but it’s kind of cute, too; the sheepish grin that stole across his face after “Shameless” seemed like Brooks had surprised even himself how deep he had just dug.
None of this would be near as effective as it is if Brooks’ songs weren’t as solid as they come, whether honky-tonk (“Two of a Kind, Workin’ On a Full House”) pre-Chesney Caribbean daydreams (“Two Pina Coladas”) or flat-out rockers (“Papa Loved Mama”). If they were released today, most of those would still probably go to No. 1, except perhaps the ones country radio dismissed as "too country." Hell, even the songs that weren’t showstoppers Friday (“That Summer,”* “The Beaches of Cheyenne”) still drew a pretty mighty roar. But in approximate reverse order of crowd volume, you have “Rodeo,” “Two of a Kind,” “The Thunder Rolls,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge” — wherein Mattingly lit a true Cajun wildfire with his fiddle — and then finally “Friends In Low Places,” which was positively deafening. With basically Brooks and a guitar, “The Dance,” “Unanswered Prayers” and “The River” were almost as loud.
Even days before the show, and then throughout, I kept wondering what it was that made Brooks so special. Then I caught myself singing along without hardly noticing, sometimes a song I hadn’t even thought about in years. Or the thing where you sort of hum out loud when you don’t even know the words (and don’t care). Then flashing back to old No Fences and Ropin’ the Wind cassettes, or hearing “Shameless” and “Friends In Low Places” on the radio in high school — and not Houston’s country stations, but Top 40 KRBE. Then it all started to make a little sense. Combine raw adrenaline, effortless showmanship, grade-A musical smarts, flawless execution, and enough heart to power the Centerpoint substation across the street from Toyota Center, and you’ve got a performer for whom there’s no such thing as too much hype. It also makes a handy lesson in humility for the rest of us who are much too young to feel this damn old.
A` Few Words About Tricia Yearwood: Brooks’ better half, one of the most soulful female country singers of the past few decades in her own right, came out a little more than halfway through the set to duet with Brooks on “In Another’s Eyes,” which ended with their lips about six inches apart. While Brooks took a much-needed breather, she sang a few of her hits, including “American Girl (XXX’s and OOO’s)" (accompanied by outtakes from her Food Network show Trisha's Southern Kitchen); “How Do I Live?” (she can sing rings around LeAnn Rimes); and “She’s In Love With the Boy,” featuring a “kiss cam” apparently on loan from Minute Maid Park. Yearwood got choked up after “Prizefighter,” the title song from her 2014 album and an anthem for breast-cancer survivors — she lost her mother to the disease in 2011 — when someone in the first few rows pointed out someone behind her holding up a banner that said “3 X Cancer Champ.” It was a moment that left us all a little speechless.
Personal Bias: If anyone’s gonna outsell The Beatles, I’m glad it’s this guy.
Overheard In the Crowd: “Just think; he’s gotta do another one of those. That’s crazy.”
Random Notebook Dump: Brooks mentioned that he practically lived in Texas during his honky-tonk years. Would love some names of the venues he played back then if some of you folks remember them.
Man Vs. Machine
Two of a Kind, Workin’ On a Full House
The Beaches of Cheyenne
Two Pina Coladas
Papa Loved Mama
Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up”)
The Thunder Rolls
All American Kid
In Another’s Eyes (with Trisha Yearwood)
American Girl (XXX’s and OOO’s) (Yearwood solo)
How Do I Live (Yearwood solo)
PrizeFighter (Yearwood solo)
Georgia Rain (Yearwood solo)
She’s In Love With the Boy (Yearwood solo)
Shameless (Billy Joel cover)
Callin’ Baton Rouge
Friends In Low Places
Fever (Aerosmith cover)
In Lonesome Dove
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
Standing Outside the Fire
*Note: This article has been edited after publication to correct the title of "That Summer."