Leave it to Garth Brooks to come to Las Vegas with a show that goes against everything Sin City represents: There are no big costume changes, dancing girls, elaborate sets or special effects: just a man and his guitar. And it’s more than enough.
Brooks stepped out of a 10-year retirement this weekend to start a five-year residency at the Encore. And it’s as if he stepped into the comfort and ease of his living room. OK, it’s a 1,500-seat living room, but the feeling is one of tremendous intimacy, propelled by Brooks’ winning homespun humor and charisma. Dressed casually in baggy jeans, a blue hoodie, and a ball cap (as opposed to his usual arena stage garb of skin-tight jeans, a loud Mo’ Betta shirt and cowboy hat), Brooks roamed the stage like a lion finally released after way too long in a cage. He constantly teetered on the lip of the stage, craving to get as close to his fans as possible.
Throughout the 100-minute show, the second of a possible 300-concert run, he wove stories of his life with a narrative thread composed partially of his musical holy trinity: George Jones, George Strait and James Taylor. He played snippets of Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and “Carolina in My Mind,” to a room so quiet you could hear a pin drop, before telling a charming tale about bawling like a baby the first time he met Taylor. Then he detailed how he wrote “The River” based on everything he learned from listening to Taylor.
As much as fans ate up the influences, Brooks didn’t get to be the RIAA’s top-selling solo artist without knowing how to read an audience, and he knew they were there to hear him perform his material. He ran through nearly three dozen songs, the vast majority of them his. As fans shouted out requests, the show had a magical “anything could happen” feel, with Brooks eager to please and nimble enough to try anything. Wife Trisha Yearwood even joined him for two numbers, including her beautifully bittersweet “Walkaway Joe.”
The loose-limbed, downhome feel of the show played to Brooks’ deprecating, aw-shucks appeal. By his own admission, Brooks isn’t much of a guitar player, but he managed to turn even that weakness into a strength. If he didn’t know how to play a request, he’d simply rip into the song a capella, which led to goose bump moments on an extremely passionate “Shameless” and stirring “The Change.” His time away has done nothing to diminish the power and suppleness of his pipes.