Garth Brooks' style makes for funny, touching show

"You're funny."

True, if not unbiased, coming from Garth Brooks' singing spouse, Trisha Yearwood.

But it sums up much of her husband's showcase at Wynn Las Vegas, one that has become as much about talking as singing.

What began as a loose back-and-forth with fans has been sculpted into a tightly controlled narrative since Brooks launched these shows a year ago this weekend.

It's still Brooks strolling a bare stage with an acoustic guitar. But now it's as much a Broadway-style forum as it is a country concert. A generational biography as well as a personal one.

In fact, there's a good 20-minute stretch between a partial rendition of the superstar's breakout hit, "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" -- because his dad always told him, "If you're looking for a place to start, try the beginning" -- and the point where he gets around to another of his own songs, "Rodeo."

That's because this close encounter with Brooks has evolved into a musical explanation -- and, yes, a funny one -- of how he became what he is. These are no random covers of "Night Moves" or "American Pie" singalongs. They don't seem as cheap and easy within this context.

But if it just so happens that those shout-outs to James Taylor and Simon & Garfunkel open up the show to those less familiar with Brooks' own songwriting? At a time when ticket prices were ratcheted up $110, perhaps shifting some of the tight ticket inventory from core fans to monied casino guests?

Well, no one ever accused Brooks or hotel proprietor Steve Wynn of lacking business smarts.

If the move is calculated, it's no less fascinating and effective.

Brooks gets to crack plenty of jokes as he talks of how the tight songcraft of his '70s heroes evolved from looser '60s hits such as Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin' ": "They were either cutting 'em too fast to finish 'em or too stoned to know the difference."

But he also opens up in a way that wasn't necessary, and perhaps not even possible, when he was barnstorming arenas.

The singer is funny, touching and vividly theatrical as he tells of the nervous first meeting with his idol Taylor. He's instructive as he breaks down the songwriting craft. "They call this a blues run in the key of E," he explains, before relating how late country cult hero Chris LeDoux told him to "take that lick and put some cowboy stuff on top of it" to make "Rodeo."

The decade-by-decade jukebox approach is layered onto his own biography, as the 48-year-old talks about growing up on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, the last of six kids.

Granted, it oversimplifies: Dad liked Haggard and Jones. Mom liked Motown. And the whole family came together the day Brother brought home the "Sweet Baby James" album.

In truth, Mom had a brief 1950s Nashville career herself. It would be nice to hear more about that; maybe about how aspiring to a singing career probably wasn't laughed off like it would have been in many households.

But to stray too far from the musical trail would skew the delicate balance of a bar-stool troubadour putting just enough truth on the table to ground things.

Brooks strips the format of any negatives -- the bare stage, the absence of a backing band -- and works the positives. So direct is the eye-to-eye contact, he almost has you convinced James Taylor is "funky."

At the same time, he no longer feels compelled to respond to every beery shout-out or request, choosing instead to settle the audience into his deliberate pace and structure.

The payoff? By the time Yearwood comes out to sing her own "Walkaway Joe" and "She's in Love with the Boy," people who already knew they liked her guy may for the first time really understand why.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ or 702-383-0288.


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