Five shows in two days to raise money to assist firefighters in California. A noble and unheard-of undertaking, one that appeared to eventually knock the wind out of — but not knock the smile off — the man delivering 10 hours of singing in a 29-hour period. Overall, Garth Brooks handled it superbly, shaking off the rust from not performing regularly and adjusting to CBS’ cameras in his first show, making the case that his superstardom is unique in his finale Saturday. It was an awe-inspiring idea and executed far better when the cameras were off; the 20-odd songs performed don’t change too much, but the order and demeanor do and that makes a stunning difference.
For the first hour Friday, Brooks was playing to living rooms and amplifying the reason behind the concerts; Saturday, well, it was a night out. Jokes, fiddle solos, a couple of drinks — practically a barbecue in Brooks’ back yard and as far as the 17,000 folks in Staples were concerned, Garth was their best buddy.
He remains the ultimate populist performer whose music rides the line between country and pop-rock. After nine songs Saturday, he had supplied a bit of something for everyone — a rocker (“The Thunder Rolls”), the honky-tonk tune “Two of a Kind, Working on a Full House,” the overwrought emotional songs (“Chase,” “Rodeo”), a cover (Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”) and two songs that don’t seem to fit the Brooks model (Caribbean-flavored “Two Pina Coladas,” the slightly gospel “We Shall be Free”).
He has enough story songs and hell-raisers, breakup songs and makeup songs that he never overdoses the crowd on any one subject or melody; three songs can’t pass without a fan seeing him or herself in the lyrics.
Unlike other arena acts whose hits are a decade or two behind them, he has held onto the fans who were listening to him in elementary school and their parents: Friday’s crowd was surprisingly young. While Saturday appeared a bit older, the enthusiasm remained at fever pitch.
It owes to his ability to hold up a mirror simultaneously to himself and his fan base. And he made more points to reinforce that fact than the firefighter fund effort on Saturday. Before launching into the rowdy “Papa Loves Mama,” he noted “There’s no difference between me and you”; “The River” was introduced as the song that generates the most letters from fans; and when Brooks appeared awed by the audience sing-along on “Unanswered Prayers,” he called it a major ego stroke.
The Friday night opener, the first hour of which CBS televised with commercials, had to go through some bumps to make sure Brooks was not only playing to the cameras, but also playing the right songs to the cameras.
His wife, Trisha Yearwood, joined him at each of the five shows for a duet on “In Another’s Eyes,” adding “Walk Away Joe” to the set list at a few of the concerts. Opener also found Huey Lewis — introduced by Brooks rather inaccurately as “blue collar” and “an icon” — joining for a duet on “Workin’ for a Livin’,” which the two of them recently recorded.
He was rusty in that first show Friday. The sound was off-kilter, especially on numbers featuring an army of electric guitarists, though improvements had been made by Saturday. The musicians seemed a bit more at ease Saturday and his guitarists, Johnny Garcia (borrowed from his wife’s band) and Gordon Kennedy, were truly exceptional, enhancing nearly every tune with compact solos.
Selling out the five shows in 59 minutes proves the Brooks phenomenon is not abating. And with his retirement at seven years and counting — he figures he will stay away from touring until at least 2014 — these public appearances have an extra cause for celebration. It was also the rare opportunity to attend a show and then return home to watch it on TV. The CBS broadcast solidly captured the enthusiasm and loudness of the crowd, unfortunately magnified Brooks’ occasional off-key singing and did a slightly better job separating the instruments in the mix than was done in the arena. Most significantly, it got the message out that California firefighters need a helping hand.