The first of the country megastar’s seven-show occupation of Big D was a dazzling display of everything fans love (and detractors hate) about him.
In a recent conversation with a friend about Garth Brooks, I mentioned that he’d had his share of haters during his ascent to superstardom. “Why?” my buddy asked, genuinely baffled as to how a singer and showman who had touched so many lives through his music and charity work could bring out such rancor. And I struggled to remember a single legitimate gripe.
Those reasons came rushing back during Thursday night’s kickoff of his six-day, seven-show stand in Dallas. But nearly 30 years into Brooks’ career, a couple decades removed from his 1990s chart-topping and record-breaking heyday, the very things for which he took some critical flak seem more like reasons to love him.
From the start, Brooks was progressive in his music, his stage show, and his politics. His KISS-inspired arena act looked more like a rock concert than a country show, and, hard as it is to imagine with today’s crop of hip-hop and rap-rock-inspired acts topping the country charts, some complained that his masses-pleasing songs weren’t “real” country either.
But Thursday night’s show would have made a believer of all but the most stubborn and curmudgeonly of Brooks’ critics.
His first Dallas show in 17 years opened with a strange series of futuristic machine images projected on a screen obscuring the stage, and one could almost see the question marks still floating over some audience members’ heads as the performer and his band were unveiled and launched into the title track of last year’s Man Against Machine — the display could have easily been mistaken for a Broadway show. But Brooks quickly said it himself — “Concerts should be for the old stuff!” — assuring the crowd that it would be the greatest-hits show that everyone was there to hear.
And that it was, complete with dazzling lights, a strange spherical cage spinning around drummer Mike Palmer, sprints around the stage, affectionate acknowledgment of individual crowd members (including a mid-verse “Happy birthday!” to a sign-holding fan during “Beaches of Cheyenne,” of all songs), and Brooks’ patented brand of aw-shucks stage humility, which seemed alternately genuine and tongue-in-cheek.
It was a night of sing-alongs, too, with Brooks at times ceding his wireless headset mic to the deafening audience to sing entire verses. The most enthusiastic sing-along was, of course, for “Friends in Low Places.” Brooks introduced that song by admitting that most of the time his guitar wasn’t even on and joked that its only function was to hide his gut. But he insisted on plucking that familiar arpeggio to kick it off.
And he used his acoustic ax to great effect during “Unanswered Prayers,” playing that wistful tune solo, as well as during his mid-set accompaniment on “Walkaway Joe” with wife Trisha Yearwood. Yearwood had her own five-song mini-set about halfway through the show, playing a few of her signature songs and closing with “She’s in Love With the Boy.” During her last song, the video display had a “Kiss Cam” capturing couples smooching, including a pair of women — remember that progressiveness I mentioned earlier? After all, this is the man who earned a GLAAD award for 1993’s gay-rights-supporting “We Shall Be Free,” which had its own moving sing-along later in the set. One guess as to the final couple featured on the “Kiss Cam” screen, though.
Throughout the set, Brooks joked that he was nervous about performing in a city that had shown him so much support and that he was too old to do it without the audience’s help, teased that he wasn’t going to do the third verse of “Friends in Low Places,” introduced “The Thunder Rolls” as if its initial slow build of popularity was some kind of underdog story, and feigned shock that the crowd was so enthusiastic. That humility, of course, was mostly for show — this is a man who lives not on food or water but the roar of the crowd. And man, what a show it was.