Photos by the author
“It's gonna be fun, but it's also going to be interesting,” Garth Brooks said four days ago, at the press conference kicking off his first world tour in 15 years. “I feel bad for the people coming [to the first show] because, I'll tell ya, we ain't as young as we used to be.” We—Garth, dozens of reporters, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, and me—were sitting in an ice-cold conference room decorated with Garth’s logo and photos of the country superstar. Garth was dressed in a “country business casual” uniform of hoodie, baseball cap, jeans, and tennis shoes. It was all a scene trying hard to make it a big deal, but also was careful not to try too hard. After all, there was a lot of pressure on Brooks to make this first world tour in years an astronomical success.
Maybe Garth was just being humble in his comments, as he always had been known for, to try and cut through all the fabrication of the event to show he’s still the same guy. Maybe. But for an artist who could not be beat in the 90s, an artist who had, at one point in his career, brought nearly a million fans to Central Park for a show—the park’s largest ever—the warning of failure was an unusual way to announce a comeback.
It’s goddamned Garth Brooks after all.
No one in country music had the kind of reach Garth Brooks did when he went on a hiatus in 2001. Hell, hardly anyone in music ever has had his reach. After a promising, traditional, but ultimately unremarkable eponymous release in 1989, Garth pivoted by adding a rock star quality to his music and his live shows that country had never seen. His next album, No Fences, contained what is now his signature song, “Friends in Low Places,” which spent 23 weeks on top of the country chart. The album was certified 17 times platinum in 2006. It was hardly an anomaly: Garth has six albums that have reached diamond status from the RIAA, which means 10 million copies sold. His Double Live album is the seventh highest selling album of all time, certified 21 times platinum. Depending on how you interpret the RIAA’s numbers, Garth is the top selling solo artist of all time in the United States—though some lists put him at number two behind Elvis or Michael Jackson or number three behind the Beatles.
During his decade-long sweet spot, Brooks was the biggest thing around. His combination of rock, pop, and country took over the world in a way that to this day has rarely been seen in music. He was a country star on the level of Michael Jackson and Elvis. The closest comparison today would be Taylor Swift, but, while Taylor has gone unabashedly pop to cross over, Garth never lost his twang, or his steel guitars. His domination was Beatles-like, his grip on the genre absolute. Country music would not be the sound and power it is today if it weren’t for Garth. And then, exemplifying the concept of going out on top, he just walked away from it all, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. It left a void in the system, which sort of collapsed and fractured into the over-patriotism of Toby Keith, the beach country of Kenny Chesney, and the pop phenomenon that is Taylor Swift. Garth held all of this in check like a great magnet.
Now, all these years later, Garth is back: He's on tour, he's releasing a new album this fall with another scheduled as well, and, by all appearances, he has a fire in his belly to reclaim his top spot. At the press conference, he expressed the hope his fans would be right there with him with his signature humility, stating, “If these [fans] are singing along with me during these shows, then it gives me hope for a second career I thought I'd never have.” If Saturday night, the fourth of his Chicago stay, is an indication, his fans are still ready to sing every word.
The show opened with the flair and showmanship Garth Brooks is known for. Striking a strong silhouette, Garth stood behind a large cube of projection screens while glitchy voiceovers and spotlights filled the Allstate Arena. He launched into a new track, “Man Against Machine,” the cube rose, and he sprinted around the stage in his signature black Stetson and head mic, stopping only to form picture-ready tableaus with his backing band. It was the Garth of old. The fire was lit. Sure, he had a little more size around his middle, but, even at 52, he had the energy of a man in his 30s. Aside from one other new song in the middle of the set, however, that introduction was as modern as Brooks got. The crowd wanted the hits, and Garth Brook has nothing but hits, so the crowd got them all. He tore through a two hour, 17-song set of classic material that had every fan losing their damn minds.
As the show went on, Garth hammed it up with goofy rock star poses and antics to a degree that would have been obnoxious coming from any other artist. He seemed to take time after every song to take his hat off and exclaim, “I have missed this so, so much!” There were repeated moments in which he took the onstage camera out of its stand and ran around holding it in audience members' faces or gooning into it. He wasn't doing these things ironically. Garth is a performer. He was there to humbly and unabashedly entertain all of the people who paid money for a ticket to see him. Sweat poured off of him. He appeared visibly winded at all times. It wasn't just an act. Garth loves his fans. He wanted them to know that he loves them and that he was leaving it all out there for them no matter what.
It was entirely appreciated. Every one of the nearly 20,000 people in attendance—and remember, this was just one of 11 shows—danced, sang, screamed, cheered, and smiled like a child on Christmas from start to finish. When he played the first four notes of “Friends in Low Places”, the place exploded, and my ears started ringing just from the crowd's yells. Trap doors in the stage opened up to reveal a dozen confetti cannons locked, loaded, and pointed over the audience. As streamers exploded from the stage at the end of the song, I yelled “holy shit” loud enough for everyone around me to hear.
Every Garth Brooks live touchstone was hit: the third verse in “Thunder Rolls” where the jilted wife straight up murders her cheating, lying husband in the driveway, the random madman screams in the middle of songs, and the defiant third verse of “Friends in Low Places.” Garth may play humble, but he knows how to play the game and sell each pivotal moment with fiery enthusiasm. It was the perfect reminder as to why this man from Oklahoma, this almost annoyingly humble country singer, was the hottest shit in all formats for a long time.
There was never any guarantee that that dominance would mean anything to fans a decade and a half down the line, though. Seeing Garth shake his head in disbelief was a regular occurrence throughout the show, but who can blame the guy? He didn't know if his legions of fans would support him again after a hiatus that lasted longer than his career initially did. It was almost obnoxious seeing him on the edge of tears after songs, but when he closed mega-hit “The Dance” by saying, “I told you guys I had to go, and had to take care of my kids, but that I'd be back. Now I'm back, and you came back with me! I can't believe it!” it felt genuine, heart-felt, and like it was coming from such a place of pure, absolute joy. It choked me up. Maybe that’s lame, but for me personally, especially growing up, Garth was what music should be. It was fun, it fucking rocked, and it was comforting. For country music, Garth means so much more. He was, and in many places still is, the poster boy for country music across the world. Earlier this year, before a cancellation due to local political controversy, Garth was scheduled to play five shows in Dublin, and he sold out all 415,000 tickets. In Dublin. Each of the 11 Chicago shows sold out in less than three hours.
This isn’t just money and recognition for Garth Brooks; it’s for all of country music. The great magnet is back into the fold, and country music fans should be ecstatic. Country music performers should probably be terrified. Garth is back to retake his place. Old fans are hungry for both some new music and his old magic. His humility and false modesty from that press conference were just that: false. After Saturday night, I can confirm, with a hoarse voice from all my shouting, that old magic is fresh once again.
Nick Freed is a writer living in Chicago. He's on Twitter - @GaryDinkledge
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