Garth Brooks had a mission when he took the stage at the Forum on Friday night, his first of four concerts to be held at the venue: to prove Los Angeles was a country music friendly town.
Already the biggest-selling solo artist of all-time, and currently completing the third year of his tour with wife Trisha Yearwood, it had been 21 years since he last played the iconic arena — not counting a television special he taped there during the nineties — and he wanted to make this memory last. Not just for himself, but for the thousands in attendance happily crossing off “Garth at the Forum” from their bucket list.
After a short, spirited opening set by singer-songwriter Mitch Rossell, followed by a well-received, more energetic performance by Karyn Rochelle, Brooks arose from a stage sphere surrounding drummer Mike Palmer and immediately took charge. His rousing version of “Baby Let’s Lay Down And Dance” flowed into “Rodeo” then “Two Of A Kind,Working On A Full House.” By the time Brooks next introduced his self-described first old cowboy song, “The Beaches Of Cheyanne,” it was clear the L.A. welcome was genuine. To wit: at no time during his and Yearwood’s performance did either have to ask the enthusiastic crowd to sing along.
Brooks looked bemused during “The River,”not to be confused with the Bruce Springsteen or Joni Mitchell song, as the room filled with the lights of cell phones. He also appeared surprised that more women were wearing cowboy hats than men. But like the musical manipulator he is, Brooks segued seamlessly into his bar anthem, “Two Pina Coladas,”and the audience raised their drinks in salute. If ever there was a mash-up that needed to made, it would be Brooks crossed with Jimmy Buffett.
Two upbeat songs later, Brooks sang his first ballad, the poignant “Unanswered Prayers,” and the moment became heavy with emotion, intensified by a chorus of stellar background vocalists (Robert Bailey, Vicki Hampton and opener Rochelle) along with his excellent longtime band.
What’s special about Brooks’ music in part is how it’s not traditional country. There’s no twang or a romantic pity party theme in his songs. If anything, performances of “That Summer” and the anthemic “Friends In Low Places” showed Brooks’ sensibility to be that rare hybrid of pop and traditional country influences. (When the extremely affable entertainer was growing up in rural Oklahoma, his favorite musicians were Kiss and James Taylor.)
Brooks appeared to challenge himself when he introduced his biggest hit, “The Thunder Rolls” as, “The song I don’t want to mess up because a lot of you went through a lot of slow traffic just to hear this one song.” What followed was a a visual spectacular and one of Brooks’ strongest vocals. Brooks stalked the stage like Mick Jagger and played the guitar with the intensity of Keith Richards as if both were trading licks on “Midnight Rambler.” (The ten-disc Garth Brooks Collection, which includes his new album “Gunslinger,” has one disc devoted to covers of pop classics written by Billy Joel, Bob Seger and Elton John, among others.)
Then, in a perfectly paced moment, Yearwood debuted on stage, while her husband retreated for five songs. Yearwood’s winning personality, considerable vocal skills and evident joy at being there resulted in the crowd instantly embracing her. When Brooks returned for a duet with Yearwood, the ballad “In Another’s Eyes,” their chemistry was electric. (Before the end of the show, both performers would comment — without rancor — on L.A. being perceived as anti-country.)
The moment when Brooks’ charm hit its apex came when he saw a young couple holding up a handmade sign and brought them to the side of the stage. The pregnant woman handed him a sealed envelope containing the sex of her future child, then explained that, regardless of its gender, Brooks would be its name. Brooks, himself a father of three girls, opened the envelope and the audience applauded at the future arrival of a baby girl. Brooks said if he was still alive when the baby entered college he would pay for her education. As many members of the audience were stunned, perhaps thinking of their own outstanding student loans, Brooks cracked that, at his age of 84 (he’s actually 55), the child better grow up fast to get her reward.
For the encore portion of what clocked in as a 135-minute, 30-song show — Brooks again invited the audience to participate. As fans in the crowd held up signs bearing various song titles, he played snippets of the request on acoustic guitar, including Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and the popular “The Change” and “Ireland.” He closed out the night with a solid rocker, “Standing Outside The Fire” — and not the kind you sit in at the age of 84.