[28 January 2008]
The Orange County Register (MCT)
We all know how the cowboy hat works. Even if you’ve never seen him do it before - if, for instance, you had just ended 50 years of cave solitude and immediately tuned in his CBS special Friday night - you’d still recognize the significance the hat holds.
When the hat is on, that ball of fire Garth Brooks is all aw-shucks smiles and wide-eyed excitement, no matter if the song’s about knocking back pina coladas or murdering a cheating spouse.
When the hat comes off, however - repeatedly, unexpectedly, almost always tucked into the crook of his left arm, revealing the next pond of sweat forming on his brow - that’s when Brooks means business. Could be he’s saluting someone. Could be he’s just got an important aside to get off his barreled chest. Either way, the twinkle in his eye can turn to stony seriousness in an instant, the boyish joy of those beaming grins switching to stoic manliness.
So what exactly did it mean when, just after midnight, as his second of five sold-out shows at Staples Center this weekend came to an end with another boisterous sing-along (this time “Unanswered Prayers”), Brooks unhooked his guitar strap, flung his acoustic to the stage with a thud - pulled down his cowboy hat, of course - dropped to his knees and screamed like he just caught a Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass?
It means I believe him when, rising to his feet, hat still off, he insisted, “I will never - never, ever - forget this night!”
I think it also means that the 10 p.m. set Friday night was waaaay better than the 6 p.m.
By definition, it pretty much had to be. Born-entertainer Brooks is second only to Bono as someone who knows how to play to cameras and crowds simultaneously, but the demand to fit material and messages into CBS’ hour-long format was intrinsically stifling.
During the earlier set (tape-delayed on the West Coast), he started with “The Thunder Rolls” for dramatic gravitas, slipped into the new ballad “More Than a Memory” after the first break (surely Capitol appreciated the product reminder) and had to indulge the beloved “Friends in Low Places” before his first hour of stage time at Staples was up.
At the 10 show, “The Thunder Rolls” was slotted fourth, after a rip-roaring (and fitting) kickoff with “Ain’t Going Down (`Til the Sun Comes Up),” then “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” and the sultry smoker “Rodeo” - all of which provided a natural progression to his moodiest smash. “More Than a Memory,” meanwhile, didn’t arrive until a dozen classics had whipped the audience into a frenzy, and “Friends” was where you’d expect it to be, toward the end of the main set.
“Stop, go, commercial, stop, go, commercial ... tonight, none of that,” Brooks pointed out after the teeming noise for his opening blast died down. “Let’s just let it swing!”
That he did, with a remarkable two-hour performance that began at a fever pitch and only seemed to gather momentum as the night wore on, the crowd’s cheering growing to a volume and strength no string of “Hannah Montana” dates packed with squealing girls could match. Garth is like a god to these people, and his infrequent local appearances - his last was another CBS taping, at the Forum in November 2001, about a year after he “retired” - tends to elicit adulation like you’ve never encountered. I heard grown men behind me hollering with sadness in their voices (“Noooo! Just one more!”) each time Brooks left the stage.
I’ve never heard that at a Bruce Springsteen show, but, more than any gig from a country star this decade, that’s what Brooks’ intensely fun show reminded me of, in both design and fan reaction. In this age of increasingly over-the-top productions from Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney and Tim & Faith, how refreshing to witness the unbridled power of just Brooks, his first-rate band and scarce few gimmicks - a bit of confetti at one point, plus a nifty lighting rig moving spider-like above him, that’s all.
There’s one crucial way he’s different from the Boss, though: His message matters, but it needn’t be hammered home. These five Staples shows and their sponsorships have already raised many millions for the 2008 Fire Intervention Relief Effort, benefitting firefighters and victims of last year’s devastating wildfires. All monies from merchandise sales during this run also have been earmarked for that F.I.R.E. fund.
Yet, though Brooks made more mention during Friday’s early show (at one point singling out key firefighters), during the late show he noted, “You’ve already done your part. You helped the victims start again. That’s the last we’re gonna speak of it, `cause tonight you came to have fun.”
Often it was hard to tell who was having a better time - Brooks or his fans. He was swooning when wife Trisha Yearwood stepped out for “In Another’s Eyes,” then stuck around for an acoustic “Walkaway Joe.” He looked as goofy-happy as a partied-up frat boy when Huey Lewis emerged for “Workin’ for a Livin’,” and watched on in delight during “Bad Is Bad” as only a true fan of the News’ `80s hit machine “Sports” could be.
He was at his most compelling, however, during a lengthy encore that played like a guided tour through Brooks’ earliest influences. A bit of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and “Turn the Page” (a clear forebear on “The Thunder Rolls”) to explain how the nostalgia of “That Summer” came to life ... a touch of his hero George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning” followed by the song he wrote for Strait (who didn’t record it) but which became his first hit instead, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” ... then a great rendition of George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as a tip o’ the hat before “If Tomorrow Never Comes” ... and a pairing of Jim Croce’s “Operator” with Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” to illustrate how he came by the everyday details of “Unanswered Prayers.”
It was an illuminating segment, the sort of storytelling typically reserved for VH1 specials. Rarely has a performer been able to make such an enormous place seem so small and intimate.
But, then, this is Garth Brooks we’re talking about here. Even retired - and likely to stay away another decade, no matter how strenuously he declares “I have missed the living hell out of this!” - one basic rule remains regarding his place in post-Strait country:
There’s Garth, and then there’s everyone else.