Garth Brooks at Wells Fargo Arena5/2/2016
I have never been a Garth Brooks fan. It has nothing to do with him, though. Everything I’ve ever heard about him leads me to believe that he’s a generous, outgoing and sincere individual. I simply have never been big into country music, and I was especially repelled by it during the mid- to late-1990s, the period when he was stamping his name onto the ledger of the genre’s greats.
But a huge number of people are Garth Brooks fans. So many here in Iowa, in fact, that Brooks was able to sell some 90,000 tickets for his latest tour and his first trip back to the state in nearly a quarter century. What started as one show in Des Moines quickly grew into six shows, and I am willing to bet that Brooks ran out of dates he could stay in one city long before he ran out of Iowans who were willing to drop the money to see him.
I attended the opening show of Brook’s multi-day residency at Wells Fargo Arena on April 29 and can say without qualification that Brooks is capable of delivering an experience as an entertainer that ranks up there with some of the best concert going experiences of your life.
The shows have come a long way in the nearly 30 years that Brooks has been plying his trade. They’ve grown and shrunk as the years and crowds have demanded, and there is no doubt that Friday night’s show was far more technically advanced than any of the times Brooks played the Iowa State Fair. This time around the show includes a giant video board that shows the concert in real time, complete with multi-camera cuts and on-screen video effects. It is used both as an enhancement to certain songs (the lightning and rain effects for “Thunder Road,”) and as a way to give people in the deep seats a way to see the concert up close. It is also some of the most impressive live video editing I have ever seen in a concert and made for a dynamic experience.
Unlike most every other act I have seen in the Well, Brooks’ stage does not block off the south wall as a backstage area, leaving Brooks and his band playing in the round. This not only added a few hundred tickets to each show’s receipts, but also gives Brooks one more spot to play to and focus some of his apparently boundless attention to.
And that is what makes his live show something to behold. I have seen musicians who are glad people showed up. I have seen musicians who really, really enjoy playing their songs. But I do not think I have seen any other with as much pure, unbridled joy as Brooks has when he is in front of a crowd. Everything he does and says on stage feels completely genuine, because there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that there is literally no place he would want to be other than on that stage, in front of those people, on that night.
Brooks’ songs have become such ubiquitous hits, his voice so recognizable and his music so familiar to even the most casual or passive of fan that he could play nothing but deep cuts and it would still feel like a greatest hits montage. But make no mistake, seemingly every radio hit the man has ever had is on display here, and each is delivered with a level of excitement and joy that is nearly unrivaled in live music today. He may be into his third decade of live performances, but Brooks has clearly lost nothing off his fastball.
Tricia Yearwood, Brooks’ wife and no stranger to the top of the charts herself, has joined him on tour. And while her own work provides a lovely, understated counterpoint to Brooks’, her appearance on this tour, and inability to match Brooks’ overwhelming stage presence, results in what amounts to a musical intermission in the middle of the act and an obvious chance for Brooks to catch his breath.
On this night, Yearwood came out for a duet with Brooks before launching into her own mini-set, kicked off by “Xxx’s and Ooo’s (An American Girl).” In a curious bit of cross-promotion, the song is accompanied by the video wall presenting clips from Yearwood’s cooking show, “Trisha’s Southern Kitchen.” Sure, the song is used as the show’s theme song, but it is still a weird experience to see her perform it live while watching a video of her deep-frying a turkey.
Yearwood’s guest appearance is brief, however, and then it is back to the main event. Before you know it, Brooks is back at full throttle, having saved his most crowd-pleasing songs for last. There is a roof-rocking rendition of “Friends in Low Places,” an encore featuring some of his older songs, and then a second, more subdued encore that Brooks kicks off by playing a couple of songs for people who had signs in the crowd, including “She’s Gonna Make It,” and “Ireland,” for a young girl in the third level with the same name.
But perhaps the most amazing thing about the first show of Brooks’ stay in Des Moines was that, when it was done, after the house lights came up and Brooks had put the finishing touches on nearly three hours of jumping, screaming and spirited performing, he went backstage, changed shirts and did the whole thing again for a full house at 10:30 p.m. Where he got the energy, only God and Garth Brooks know. But having seen him on that stage, giving everything he could to people who were happy to give him everything back, you would not be faulted for assuming that the one thing that gives Brooks an inexhaustible fountain of energy from which to draw is a house full of fans. Of which, I am one.