The game-changing arrival of Garth Brooks at the Wynn may be the first glimpse of the next Las Vegas and a new showbiz paradigm: the anti-spectacle. After a decade of ever-more-elaborate (and impersonal) Cirque-dominated, can-you-top-this? extravaganzas—epitomized by Celine Dion and Bette Midler—Brooks and Steve Wynn are keeping it unplugged and unpretentious. They’re even keeping a low overhead (well, except for that jet). Somehow Wynn alone found a retired superstar with international reach, but a particular appeal to American heartland devotees, who has been off the stage long enough (since 2001) to build up an appetite, who has the charm and chops to turn in a show that feels like an extraordinary privilege.
No costumes (the audience is more dressed-up than the star) means no costume changes. Production values are high, with luxe lighting, a wireless headset and a bit of reverb in the pin-drop audio, but there are no special effects, no band, no dancers, no pyro.
Dressed down in a hoodie, jeans, baseball cap and work boots, Brooks, 47, could be a husky Anyguy—you’d never recognize him if you bumped into him in the casino. Brooks joked that Friday’s first show was “rougher than a cob” (I went on Saturday), but his crowd doesn’t care if he spaces on a lyric or biffs a guitar lick; in fact, they eat it up.
Brooks’ repertoire—and his voice—is a skilled, distilled summation of country music’s past hybridized with ’70s singer-songwriter pop. He nods to his inspirations, warming up with Merle Haggard, George Jones and his “king” George Strait, and reserving special love for his man-crushes, James Taylor and Billy Joel. His fans clearly share his sentimental journey: Several times Brooks stopped singing altogether, leaving the last choruses of “Piano Man” to the audience, which joyously took over.
- Weekends through February 28
- Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 & 10:30 p.m., $125
- (all announced dates are sold out, though some tickets are made available before showtime)
- Wynn Las Vegas’ Encore Theater, 770-7000
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What the multiplatinum Brooks is doing for an estimated $125 a ticket is an exalted version of what he was doing 20 years ago as a green unknown, playing covers for tips at Wild Willie’s as an Oklahoma college student. While Brooks’ audience is paying rapt attention to his high-end busking, you can bet that somewhere else in town, some singer is playing his or her guitar at a bar—singing Garth Brooks covers, most likely—while paying customers obliviously carry on drinking, talking and playing beer pong.
After a few songs, Garth brings up the house lights and takes questions— and requests! Brooks is the rare superstar ready, willing and able to work on his feet. And these apparently spontaneous, unexpected requests included some early and obscure Brooksiana, providing some of the most polished and powerful moments of the show. He got around to “Friends in Low Places,” of course (“I’m gonna make you wait”), and when he did—teasing out the opening chords, standing close to the crowd with the toes of his work boots hanging over the lip of the stage—it seemed unfollowable. Until Brooks followed it, with “The Dance.”
What fans want is to feel as if their idol might see them or hear them. This isn’t possible in, say, the cavernous Colosseum, where the performers’ main objective is to project persona and hit their marks in an assembly-line show that’s virtually the same night after night. Each concert of Brooks’ five-year engagement has the potential to feel like a one-of-a-kind occurrence.
Twitter at your own risk: Hypervigilant ushers rush up and down the aisles, aiming their blue penlights at anyone who might be texting or recording forbidden video or audio from their seats. The ushers’ hovering omnipresence was more annoying than the lights from the tiny screens, but they were on a mission from Headquarters. “Mr. Wynn told us that he doesn’t want to see this show on YouTube,” one middle-aged usher told me after the show. As the audience filed out, she leaned against a wall, catching her breath after 90 minutes of search-and-destroy stair sprints.