Garth Brooks did my job for me Friday night when he took a moment toward the end of his set to talk to me about my concert review. Okay, I realize that sounds a little bit egotistical and far-fetched. I’ll clarify: He took a moment to address all of my media cohorts in the building by referring to us as “the press” before saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he knows we, “the press,” judge everything about his next two weekends of performances off opening night only. “So get ready,” Brooks warned us, “because Arizona, you kicked some serious ass tonight.”
I’m not going to argue with him on this. The crowd at Talking Stick Resort Arena at Garth Brooks’ first Valley concert in nearly two decades did indeed kick some serious ass. They were deafening with maniacal screams and cheers that never once fell below roar volume for the duration of the two-hour show. Brooks even took time to wallow in their madness at one point when he held a contest to see which section of the stadium could be the loudest by dividing the arena into quadrants that would erupt with noise every time he pointed his thumb-and-index-finger six-shooter at them.
So my disclaimer to fans attending one of the next five performances Brooks has scheduled is this: You have been informed, and the bar has been set. Get ready to get loud.
Garth Brooks has embraced a key marketing strategy for his current world tour: setting up shop in a city for several weeks and playing multiple shows over that span, effectively milking every penny out of local audiences. It is something that only a superstar could pull off, but it’s clear that he learned the tactic from his three-year stint (which ended in 2012) as a weekly performer at the Wynn Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
The man that introduced arena rock concerts to country music began his performance when the cube-shaped LED screen in the center of the stage illuminated with a countdown. It turned out to be a countdown to an explosion, because when the clock hit zero, the crowd came alive as the band, followed by Brooks, took the stage, which was designed to allow Brooks access to all four sides of the massive square. A giant sphere (which looked like the Gyrosphere from Jurassic World) in the middle housed the drummer, and Brooks was able to entertain fans along the entire circumference of the arena.
After opening with “Man Against Machine,” from his 2014 album of the same name, Brooks assuaged fans who may have already been jumping the gun and considering throwing out the baby with the bathwater by offering up: “When I pay for a seat, I want to hear the old stuff. Yes, we have a new album, but we're here with the stuff we hope you want to hear. You're at a Garth show!" The declaration pleased the crowd, and Brooks wisely did not shove anymore songs that nobody knew down our throats.
What followed was an array of vintage Brooks hits tailored to encompass the emotion and atmosphere of the night. Reading like a stage play, the first act of songs carried listeners along a variety of tempos, from the upbeat “Two Pina Coladas,” on which he declared “I am the captain,” to the more introspective “Unanswered Prayers.” The latter essentially turned the stadium into the world’s largest televangelist experiment as concertgoers sang along in unison to the religion-driven chorus.
With a massive rainstorm digitized on the screen above the stage, the first act was wrapped up with a rocking performance of “The Thunder Rolls” that hit so hard on the instrumentals it felt AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” This gave way to act two, which was controlled by Brooks’ wife, singer songwriter Trisha Yearwood. After singing a duet of “In Another’s Eyes”, Brooks exited the stage to let his better half belt out hits that included “How Do I Live,” “American Girl,” and “She’s in Love With the Boy,” complete with a ballpark-worthy KissCam.
Brooks re-emerged for the third and final act to put an exclamation point on the evening. He brought out all the stops and pulled no punches with tracks like “Callin’ Baton Rouge” (according to him, his favorite track to perform) and the barroom favorite “Friends in Low Places.”
In the past, Brooks has said that he always wanted a song that people could recognize off of the first chord, and he accomplished the mission with “Friends in Low Places.” After admitting to the audience that the guitar he keeps slung around his neck for the entire concert is not even plugged in, but is just there to hide his gut, he said he is only allowed by his band to play one song before striking the first notes of “Friends” and sending the crowd into frenzy.
It is really a testament to Brooks’ catalog that he is able to insert his signature tune, “Friends in Low Places,” into his setlist not as a highlight but rather just another hit in the arsenal from his lengthy career.
When discussing the career of Brooks, it is around this time that people like to bring up the elephant in the room. Just to be clear, we’re not going to make awkward jabs at Brooks’ 1999 transition into Chris Gaines, his rock ’n’ roll alter ego, in this review. When you have more money than your grandchildren’s grandchildren can spend, and your version of being wedged between a rock and a hard place is being stuck between Elvis Presley and the Beatles for the number two spot in record sales in U.S. history, you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want. Plus, Y2K was on the horizon at that time — we all did things we’re not proud of around then.
Brooks’ music has made the leap of time to go full-circle from inception to maturity and still maintain its relevancy today; something only truly timeless music can accomplish. Even more so, his songs evoke a sense of nostalgia deeper than those of many other artists, and unless you want to go dust off your old cassette tapes or early CDs, hearing a Garth Brooks song can seem almost like a rare treat since the guy refuses to put his music on streaming music services or iTunes. (Seriously, what is the damn deal with that?)
It is with that same sense of nostalgia that even I, an employed impartial reviewer of the performance, couldn’t escape the clutches of Brooks’ memory-sparking lyrics. “Ain’t Going Down Till the Sun Comes Up” harks back to a raunchy teenage stint in rural Colorado. The lyrics of “That Summer” capture an awe-inspiring moment; meanwhile, one of my best friends and I recite the chorus of “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” with each other on our birthdays. When my grandfather died in 1997, my mother and uncle chose Brooks’ “The Dance” to send him off at the funeral. Hearing these songs again stirs the soul and brings those memories and images roaring into focus.
I don’t think it can be overstated how much energy Garth Brooks has. At 53 years old, he’s an all-out, balls-to-the-wall wild man on stage. Seriously, he gives the most renowned stage rockers in the world a run for their money, as he ran rampant like a madman at full speed working all sides of the arena. While still singing, he darted in between his band members, harassed his drummer by smacking the hi-hat and cymbals on the drum kit, and stole a video camera from the crew to run around stage and film the audience himself while the video feed projected onto the massive stage monitors above. Oh, and we can’t forget the point where also climbed on top of the Jurassic World gyrosphere like a jungle gym to go for a rodeo-caliber eight-second ride.
"The only way this big ass is going to get through six shows in this city,” Brooks said during all of his stage antics. “You guys are going to have to help me out."
To which nobody seemed to mind carrying the lyrics of every song right along with him.
Last Night: Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood at Talking Stick Resort Arena
The Crowd: Multiple generations of country music fans.
Overheard in the Crowd: "You'd think he'd lose ten pounds running around every night like that" as he jumped around the stage like a maniac.
Personal Bias: I was not expecting Garth Brooks to put on the full-blown concert that he did. I was expecting something closer to a seasoned veteran taking it slow and easy on stage and letting his legacy carry his performance. I could not have been more wrong about that.
Set List: (Approximately)
Man Against 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
In Another’s Eyes (Duet with Trisha Yearwood)
How Do I Live
She’s in Love with the Boy
Callin’ Baton Rouge
Friends in Low Places
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
Standing Outside the Fire