You might say Garth Brooks is a crowd-pleaser. You might also say Michael Jackson was a good dancer and Beatles songs are catchy.
Garth -- to call him "Brooks" is as fussy and mannered as referring to "Presley" -- has the sales figures to deserve mention alongside those other superduperstars, of course. But he's earned their company because he's channeled his drive to satisfy huge audiences into performances masterful enough to transform "crowd-pleasing" from a backhanded critic's compliment to a form of artistry in itself.
Detractors call Garth's gift of convincing an arenaful of admirers that he exists solely for their delight "pandering," because an attempt at seduction always seems pathetic when you rebuff it.
But his decade-plus of hits is as thrilling as any pop star's, and at the first of his 11 Target Center shows -- and his first Minneapolis performance since he stopped touring in 1998 -- we got to hear just about all of them in about two hours, because you don't get to be Garth Brooks by disappointing your fans. (That's how you get to be Chris Gaines.)
The show started with a bit of schtick as winning as it was ridiculous. The green digital "g" that had been spinning on the video screen onstage glitched and fizzled, replaced by a red skull and crossbones and a scary robot voice, then a clock counting down the remaining minute before Garth's appearance. First a larger-than-life silhouette was visible; then he shot up from below, a pudgy everyman in black hat, untucked denim shirt, and relaxed fit jeans, to sing the song we'd all been waiting to hear: "Man Against Machine."
Well, ha, OK. On the real side, no one's going to clamor for the title track to Garth's upcoming album on his next comeback. But you don't get to be Garth Brooks by refusing to promote your new product. And as the song climaxed with Garth and his musicians performing furiously to stave off a descending lighting rig, the spectacle was so engaging we all forgot that we didn't really want to hear this song, which name checks John Henry but is probably about Garth's struggle to find a way to sell his back catalog digitally without giving iTunes a cut. (You don't get to be Garth Brooks by abandoning your revenue streams.) As though to calm any fears, he immediately kicked into "Rodeo" next, and responded to the crowd's excitement by shouting, "You remember the old songs!" in feigned amazement. Oh, Garth.
Like all great arena-rock shows, except more so, a Garth Brooks concert sounds hokier when described after the fact than it feels at the time. It's like hearing a transcription of last night's pillow talk read aloud over breakfast the next morning. Did we really respond so eagerly to that manipulative banter, the way he gnawed the caps off water bottles that he then tossed into the crowd, the Gene Simmons-y screech of "yeah" between songs? Yes. Yes. Yes. And we'd do it again for the next 10 shows if we could.
Rather than whooping the crowd up, Garth pretended to try to contain it, offering to soothe us with ballads lest we wear ourselves out to soon. "I've seen more Garth Brooks shows that anyone in here," he warned. "People, you're starting out way too fast." And each promise of a slower number was met with a speedier rocker, climaxing with the galloping "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)," a breakneck romp about the joys of all-night teenage fucking.
In Garth Brooks's world, you see, love never doesn't include hot sex. So the domestic swinger "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House" is literally baby-making music (the old folks in the crowd were just plain adorable during that one), and the distracted driver of "Callin' Baton Rouge" recalls an almost unimaginably good time in bed.
Of course, Garth confronted the danger of indulging in (what I wish he wouldn't call) passion (even though I understand why he does) last night as well. After all these years, "The Thunder Rolls" combines the foreboding of "Riders on the Storm" with the garishness of a Lifetime Original Movie (and if you think that's an insult you need more, er, passion in your life), while "Papa Loved Mama," which ends with with pa's truck embedded in the hourly rate motel occupied by ma and her latest friend, turns adultery into a killer joke.
Physically, of course, Brooks is more schlubby sitcom hubby than king of the boudoir, a fact he acknowledged with winning self-deprecation -- early on he claimed to be 137 years old, later he claimed his acoustic guitar wasn't even amplified, that he just used it to hide his gut. He's actually 52 and ... well, not every middle-aged man looks like Dwight Yoakam in jeans. But if Garth's once-cherubic face has taken on a potatoish Ned Beatty quality, his blue eyes remain Peter O'Toole-level startling. And regardless he retains a true star's ability to bask in his fans' admiration in the way that only encourages more (and louder) admiration.
One nice thing about being married to Trisha Yearwood is you get to call her out mid-set to play a handful of her own tunes and just chill out toward the back of the stage with your guitar. Yearwood, in plaid slacks and an ever-so-slightly yet noticeably frayed jean jacket, joined her husband onstage for the big ballad "In Another's Eyes," introduced "How Do I Live" as "a beautiful song from the movie Con Air," reminded us how feminist she was for '90s Nashville with the career woman anthem "XX's and OO's (An American Girl)" and managed to not be entirely upstaged by a KissCam during "She's in Love With the Boy."
Garth returned with "Shameless," a song that so fully embodies his ethos that Billy Joel could have written it for him specifically, then continued to steam things up with "Callin' Baton Rouge" (see above). Ever the tease, he paused a 19K-person singalong to "Friends in Low Places," his masterpiece of class resentment, by threatening to withhold the third verse, then relented and allowed us to shout a climactic "kiss my ass" at the hoity dame whose soiree we were all crashing. And for a finale, of course, "The Dance," a wise and candid acknowledgement of the importance of heartbreak.
Garth didn't have too many big hits left for the encore, but for "The Fever," an Aerosmith cover, the gyroscope-like cage in which his drummer was encased rose up from the state and rotated, and the keyboard players' separate platforms elevated as well. The night's previous deficit of pyrotechnics was corrected during "Standing Outside the Fire." And a man who evidently felt pretty damn good for his age, sweat-stained mugging aside, closed with "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)." Garth took a while to exit the stage, flaunting the true showman's ultimate gift by convincing a satisfied crowd that nonetheless wanted more that he leaves us reluctantly, that he would stay with us all night, pleasing us, if only he could.
Critic's bias: The very first story I wrote for City Pages, way back in 1998, was a review of Garth's album Sevens -- a little overenthusiastic, in hindsight, since that album marked a mild decline. But generating overenthusiasm is what Garth does.
The crowd: Mostly couples, and younger than you might think, even though the guy hasn't had a hit in years and has kept his music unavailable digitally.
First Garth set:
Man Against Machine
Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House
The Beaches of Cheyenne
Papa Loved Mama
Ain't Goin' Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)
The Thunder Rolls
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
People Loving People
In Another's Eyes (with Trisha Yearwood)
Trisha Yearwood set:
XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl)
How Do I Live
She's in Love With the Boy
Second Garth set:
Callin' Baton Rouge
Friends in Low Places
The Fever (Aerosmith cover)
Two Pina Coladas
Standing Outside the Fire
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
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