It’s confession time:
I was ready for Garth Brooks to tank.
This was almost three years ago, December 2009, when Brooks showed up at a news conference at Wynn Las Vegas to describe the show he was bringing into Encore Theater. I wistfully remembered that moment this week, as Brooks announced he was leaving Las Vegas, ending his acoustic, one-man show at Encore Theater next month.
Brooks performed one weekend a month for three years of what was originally, potentially, a five-year run. The show could have ended at any point but was not contracted to last longer than five years. Nov. 17 is his final performance at the Strip resort.
On the night he debuted at Encore, just hours before he was to take the stage, Brooks met with members of the media in a Wynn Las Vegas conference room.
It didn’t take long to map out what was planned.
Brooks would sing and play guitar. He’d make changes on the fly, tuning his instrument as needed and taking requests shouted by fans seated in the theater. He would play his own songs, yep. He would sample the music of the artists who inspired his music and songwriting throughout his career, too.
The scene would hearken somewhat to the rowdy days of Brooks’ youth, when he performed for swaying drunks at Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater, Okla. Except fans would pay $125 apiece for this tavern-like showcase (a fee that, over time, would leap to $250 per seat).
And as this was explained, I thought, “Really? We’re kidding with this, right?” It did not seem a winning formula to draw fans to one of the Strip’s grand properties over what was then expected to be a five-year residency. It didn’t even seem like a formula at all. The superstar was to show up with no production effects aside from basic stage lighting, an amplifier plugged into his guitar and a wireless mic set looped around his head.
I recall thinking of how I was going to write about this show. The line, “Are we really falling for this?” was swirling in my head. Would we pay to see Carlos Santana tune a guitar? Elton John run scales? Celine Dion blow into a tuning harp?
It was a classic case of contempt before investigation.
Brooks ambled to the stage that night wearing a black baseball cap with “Garth Brooks Las Vegas” stitched across the front, plus attire you could pick up at any department store in the country: a hoodie, baggy jeans and work boots. He’d actually dressed down from his media session earlier in the day to perform on a Las Vegas stage.
Then he started strumming and engaging the audience in conversation. The crowd rose to greet him, and he cut off the skeptics with the famously self-effacing line, “Boy, are you going to be disappointed.” Then he sang in a way anyone who sings in the shower or while driving can only dream about.
I was wrong about this guy, and about this show, in a big, bad way.
Brooks show that night was very close to the show he would perform each month for the next three years at Encore. In the months leading to Brooks' residency, Steve Wynn had been in the audience to see Brooks perform a private party at the hotel. Wynn was seated next to Bette Midler, at the time headlining at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, who turned to Wynn and asked, “Have you signed him yet!?”
Midler, Wynn and surely everyone who saw that show felt the same sensation anyone in a Brooks audience experiences. You couldn’t help but love the performance. Wynn had to have this guy and threw a mountain of money (Brooks said it was more than he thought the billionaire resort mogul could afford) and a private jet to deliver Brooks and his wife, country star Trisha Yearwood, to and from their home in Owasso, Okla., to Las Vegas.
It was a lavish outlay for what seemed little more than a saloon show in a pretty room. But Brooks was able to win over audiences in the ways that really matter. He has honed his music chops and stage presence over years of playing at such haunts as Willie’s Saloon. He is naturally and immensely talented, even as he jokes about not being a master musician or even a singer in the same class as some of his icons, George Jones and Merle Haggard and James Taylor among them.
Most important has been Brooks’ intuitive skill at holding a crowd. While charting a musical path highlighted by snippets of songs from his favorite artists, Brooks shows that over the years he did not just listen to the music of his life to be entertained. He absorbed it. He studied songwriting from the living room of his home, dominated by the musical tastes of his father, and in the back seat of his mother’s Chevy Chevelle, roaring through Oklahoma at 90 mph as Cat Stevens and Don McLean played on the beast’s AM radio.
Brooks is not one to introduce songs. He resurrects them in the context of how they influenced his development as an artist and a man. Haggard’s lyrics about prison life jarred Brooks as a child. The songs of the 1960s threw him into a state of confusion, the nonsensical “lie la lie!” refrains of “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel and the long playout of “na-na-na-na” in “Hey Jude.”
As he says, “They were too stoned to finish songs in the ’60s.”
Brooks has talked of his love for artists ranging from KISS to Reba McEntire. He credits Ricky Skaggs with sparking a country music revival with “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown” in the days after the film “Urban Cowboy” threatened to push the genre into pop territory.
Of course, Brooks himself crosses over to any number of music styles, where it seems no genre is out of bounds. He has performed “Hard Luck Woman” with KISS on “The Tonight Show.” He repeatedly talks of songwriters “speaking to me,” describing the street scene in Bob Seger so vividly described in “Mainstreet” as life-altering. He is jealous of so many artists who preceded him to fame: George Strait for his capacity to entertain an arena audience while maintaining the same pose behind the microphone for two hours; Billy Joel for playing the piano with such acumen because “he has seven fingers on each hand.” He fawns over James Taylor for his self-taught songwriting and musicianship.
Upon meeting Taylor, Brooks laughably says, “I don’t think I’m gay, but … this guy was beautiful!” and remembers tears spilling onto his guitar as he rehearsed “Sweet Baby James” for an appearance with Taylor on VH1’s “Honors” show.
You laugh. You cry. You stand, too. A half-dozen standing ovations during Saturday’s show, one for the moment Brooks summoned Yearwood to the stage. Once more, it was not just to sing. There would be banter. Yearwood further reduced her superstar husband to an everyman personality by joking that, when he arrives in the kitchen in the morning, it is through a riser built in the floor. Fake smoke fills the room, she says, and he asks his wife to announce, “Ladies and gentlemen! Garth Brooks!”
As the crowd laughs, Brooks calls over, “You about finished?” and adds, “Just remember whose show this is.” Then the two duet on “In Another’s Eyes,” with just Brooks’ guitar accompaniment, a beautiful moment.
Brooks closes his show with the song that he’s proud to know “is sung at frat parties and sporting events across the country.”
As expected, the song is “Friends in Low Places.” The audience — which knows every word to Brooks’ songs — roars back, “I’m not big on social graces, think I’ll slip on down, to the OH-asis!” as the performer hunches over his guitar and laughs out the lyrics.
At the end you realize this one-man show was not that. It belonged to everyone. And that is Brooks’ great gift, his ability to lead us on that whimsical, musical journey. As the saloon goes dark, we can only tip our hat and hope that one day we’ll see him again.