A football stadium might not be the best place to see Garth Brooks perform but it’s for sure the most appropriate.
Brooks’ career is one of quantifiable superlatives, the big-bigger-biggest and the more-most-all. This has inspired some annoying business decisions—his willingness to endlessly repackage and resell his material in a quest to surpass the Beatles’ sales records, his decision to start his own streaming service so Apple and Spotify couldn’t get a cut, a bizarre mid-’90s crusade to outlaw the used-CD market. But that appetite for commercial triumph is, for better or worse, inseparable from the go-for-broke, heart-on-his-denim-sleeve emotional thrust of Brooks’ songs—and from the live Garth Brooks experience, which is about performing to as many Garth fans as humanly possible.
For the first of two nights at U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday, Garth gathered more of those faithful in the same place at the same time than ever before in Minnesota: About 70,000 filled the sold-out pigskin shed, and just as many will be there tonight. (Last time in town, in 2014, he filed more than 200,000 ticketholders in and out of Target Center over the course of an 11-show stand.) And the usual concert boasts about going all night and playing every song you wanted to hear—the indoor stadium meant no noise curfew, Garth reminded us—weren’t wholly empty. In all, he ran through nearly 30 songs, including a mostly request-driven seven-song encore, in a two-and-a-quarter-hour set.
As always, Brooks lauded us with the sort of flattery that paradoxically feels more sincere as it balloons in grandiosity. “You’re gonna wear my big ass out tonight,” he said at one point, and when he hauled on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark,” which has been a between-inning MLB staple for years now, he congratulated the audience’s familiarity with country music as lavishly as if they’d recognized an obscure Ernest Tubb B-side.
“Fishin’ in the Dark” is also a great song, and the thing about Brooks, who made his name by seeming to flaunt an over-the-top lowbrow tastelessness, is how good his taste actually is. He has an A&R man’s ear for the well-crafted country song. (Or had—every knockout he played dated back at least to the first Clinton Administration.) “Papa Loves Mama,” which captures the entire doomed history of a marriage in two 12-line verses and a chorus, deserves to be in a damn anthology of best American short stories. And that taste extends to his musical settings. The image-establishing hit “Friends in Low Places” is one the best arranged country songs of the late 20th century, featuring an economically perfect pair of fiddle licks even a casual admirer could hum right now.
And of course, Garth remains our horniest country superstar. Where most of the all-hat, big-talking purty bros who act like they want to rhymes-with-truck you actually sound like they’d pass out from tequila overload while you’re still unbuckling their belt, 57-year-old Garth remains eternally DTF. He’s a master of innuendo, from “we really fit together if you know what I’m talkin’ about” on “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” to the title of the auctioneer-paced romp “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Till the Sun Comes Up)” to the way he stretches out the last word of the phrase “mama loved men” on “Papa Loved Mama” to imply just how many, how much, and how often she loved them.
Garth brought out his photographer, a fellow named Spencer from Lakeville, Minnesota (cue huge cheers), and offered to take his picture for a change, then apologized. “Sorry man, these pictures are gonna suck.” He ran across the front of the stage slapping hands. He carefully sprinkled an entire bag of M&Ms into the crowd where a lesser showman would have just tossed out the whole load at once. He acknowledged as many of the handwritten signs in the crowd as he could, and I haven’t seen that many of them since the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video. There was a sign celebrating his fiddle player, a sign (successfully) requesting his tolerance anthem “We Shall Be Free,” a sign indicating a marriage proposal that prompted him to serenade the newly affianced with “Make You Feel My Love,” a song that he, Adele, and Bob Dylan (its writer) have all striven in vain over the years to make sound like the standard it was surely written to be.
Brooks performed much of the encore’s requests solo and acoustically, digging into the past for “Learning to Live Again” (a terrifyingly accurate song about how much dating sucks as an adult), playing “Ireland” for some Irish fans, and sharing an a cappella bit of “The Change” when he didn’t think he could pull it off on guitar. Then he closed with a pair of covers: a suitably randy choice of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and the unfortunate “American Pie,” which I’m sure he picked for the same reason he brought someone onstage earlier to sing “Happy Birthday” to her—he knew everyone would know the words. There’s only one human being who loves sing-alongs more than a Garth Brooks fan, and that’s the famous guy who kept leading those sing-alongs from the stage last night.
But the showstopper of the night was, as always, “Friends in Low Places.” (It occurred to me, while watching, how funny it is to imagine the hoity-toits he’s harassing actually being intimidated by Garth Effing Brooks. I mean, what’s he gonna do? Pump his fist, let out a little yowl, and barf in the floral arrangement?) Brooks could play “Friends in Low Places” for an hour and the crowd would hang with him for every chorus. Or—and I can’t believe he hasn’t thought of this—he could run through it 16 times in a row and top Travis Scott’s record-holding 15 consecutive “Goosebumps” performances. Clearly no one has told Garth there’s a world record at stake or else he’d have done it already.
Click here to see a photo slideshow of Garth Brooks at U.S. Bank Stadium
All Day Long
Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House
Two Piña Coladas
The Beaches of Cheyenne
Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)
Fishin' in the Dark (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band cover)
We Shall Be Free
The Thunder Rolls
Standing Outside the Fire
More Than a Memory
Papa Loved Mama
Ask Me How I Know
Callin' Baton Rouge
To Make You Feel My Love
Friends in Low Places
Learning to Live Again
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
Night Moves (Bob Seger cover)
American Pie (Don McLean cover)