"My whole career,” Garth Brooks told his fans Saturday night, “you’ve always just let me be me.”
Still, it’s hard to say whether the country megastar’s first weekend at Wynn Las Vegas was a case of getting reacquainted, or of really getting to know him for the first time.
Either way, Brooks’ solo-acoustic shows — the first four of what may be 300 in the next five years — were audacious and revealingly pure. And considering Cher was on the other side of the Strip offering the bloated spectacle that’s become synonymous with Las Vegas, it was almost transgressive in its simplicity.
The singer walked onto a bare stage of the Encore Theater on Saturday, direct (via private jet) from his daughter’s soccer game in Memphis, Tenn., wearing a hooded sweat shirt and ball cap. He looked less like a star and more like the people who traipse through Wynn Las Vegas for a look-see but can’t afford one of its restaurants.
He plugged in, tuned up and adjusted the sound levels, all in front of the audience. Then he paced the lip of stage with his acoustic guitar, never using the single stool for anything but a place to set his bottled water as he led a 90-minute tour through his own songs and those who influenced him.
Because it doesn’t take long to change shirts, it’s fair to wonder whether the dress code was a deliberate visual to reinforce the off-the-cuff vibe and exploratory nature of the gig. And if we wonder at all, that’s because Brooks’ amazing ride in the ’90s seemed to have less to do with luck than brilliant calculation.
We’re now so used to the Carrie Underwoods of this world being just “stars” and not “country stars,” it’s hard to remember it was Brooks who pulled country into the pop mainstream and out of a specific corner of the music industry. So new was a country singer citing Kiss as an influence and running up and down ramps in sports arenas, it was fair to ask whether the world loved Garth or the idea of Garth.
Brooks is still selling himself, down to admiring the chord progressions of some of his songs (“Hear that sound? That’s just lonesome right there”). But now he’s selling himself as a regular guy, kind of amazed at what happened to him. And if they didn’t love him going in Saturday, they loved him going out.
Saturday’s show found him still a little scattered and interrupting himself a lot. “I’m so excited I’m out of breath. And I’m also out of shape,” he noted. But it was also the show that “tells me I can do this gig.”
In both a Review-Journal interview and a group news conference, Brooks asked reviewers not to give away the set list; he likened it to not giving away the end of a movie. Watching the show, the request seemed curious. The show was more a stream-of-conscious flow, and Saturday’s song list was, based on other reports, much different than Friday’s.
After the first half-hour, Brooks started taking audience requests. And unless you think he’s sneaky enough to plant requests for more obscure tunes such as his Christmas song “Belleau Wood,” Brooks seemed genuinely challenged by some of them. “The Change” was one of several tunes where he confessed to not knowing all the guitar chords, so he belted some of it a cappella. And when someone asked for “The Red Strokes,” he thanked them for requesting it as though flattered that someone remembered the song.
It doesn’t take a big fan to know that he has long cited Billy Joel, Bob Seger and James Taylor as influences. In the spirit of his request, I will say no more of the specific homages. But it seemed clear the experience owed less to what he played than sharing in it. It wasn’t hearing “Friends in Low Places,” because the crowd sang most of it. It was the communal experience of him coaxing the audience into that last, low “o” and the smile on his face when we all did it right.
If Brooks really does this gig for five years, it will inevitably become more refined and routine, unless fading novelty leads to new twists. One could even debate the pluses and minuses of adding an accomplished guitarist as a stage foil, in the manner of Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds’ weekend shows at Planet Hollywood.
Let’s hope Brooks keeps bringing out his wife, Trisha Yearwood, to sing her two signature hits (“She’s in Love With the Boy” and “Walkaway Joe”). But only the first weekenders got the laugh of him struggling to find e-flat guitar tuning, and her joking, “This is what you paid your money for folks.”
It was indeed. If that’s too raw for the “new country” fans who buy whatever is currently being sold, they can wait for Kenny Chesney’s next tour, making it easier for the Brooks fans who waited for this comeback to get tickets.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.