Best Selling Solo Artist of all time. Country Music Hall of Famer. Husband and Father. There are many ways to describe Garth Brooks. But after seeing the last of 4 sold out performances in Ottawa, his second of that day, I need to add: hell of an entertainer. He walked away from his career at the height of his fame to raise his kids, career suicide in an industry that is all about the now, but his comeback Garth Brooks World Tour picks up right where he left off, as if he never went away.
The stage setup was inspired by in the round stages with a catwalk allowing the musicians to play to every seat in the house (and each of the seats were occupied). From the moment Garth Brooks appeared on stage, he had the crowd eating from his hand. Simply looking at a section of fans drew hysterical cheers from fans who’d patiently waited for his return. Starting with “Man Against Machine” from his latest album, the singer quickly reassured fans that he’s “like all of you. When I pay to see an artist I love, I wanna hear the old stuff too.” And indeed, the rest of the setlist only drew from his preretirement material up until the all request encore.
He started digging through is back catalog with “Rodeo”, “Two of a Kind” and “Beaches of Cheyenne”, but it was with an amazing rendition of “The River” that the show got into overdrive and never let off until the end. “Let’s see if you guys know the words to the old stuff”, as he launched into the ballad with only his acoustic guitar as accompaniment. Instantly the lighters came out (sorry, wrong decade; the cellphones came out) and the crowd did know the words. This beautiful melody took on a magical quality when sung by 20 something thousand people and became a communal experience
Brooks’ connection with his audience is something to behold. Between every songs he chats with the crowd, and he has this ability to make you feel like he’s talking directly to you. His “Aw, shucks, you guys like me!” demeanour could come across as fake, but he works the regular joe persona in everything he does, and it’s genuine. Sure, he plays the crowd a bit, but he seems so down to earth that he never crosses into self-absorbed rockstar bullshit mode.
“Two Piña Coladas” kept the massive sing-along going, and provided the best musical advertisement for fruity cocktails since Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville”. For most of the night, Brooks and his band would move around, making the most out of the stage configuration. His 10-piece band provides perfect support, not surprising considering they’ve all been backing Brooks since pretty much the beginning of his career (He playfully introduced fiddler Jimmy Mattingly as “the rookie”, for having only been in the band 22 years).
“Ain’t Going Down ’til the Sun Comes Up” let the band get their rock out before the singer went back to his acoustic guitar for “Unanswered Prayers” as the song became another massive singalong. “That Summer” and “The Thunder Rolls” were two other highlights of a concert that was pretty much highlights from start to finish.
At the beginning, Brooks had promised some special events for the last show of his Ottawa stand, and he took us live on TV on the American Country Music Awards to present the best album nominees, and crown Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” as the winner, with multiple shots of the crowd making it to the broadcast.
Then the tour’s special guest Trisha Yearwood came on to duet with her husband on “In Another’s Eye”, followed with a 5 song mini set. It worked so much better than having her be the opening act. Of course, she’s a superstar in her own right, and got a great reaction from the crowd. Her megahit “How Do I Live” brought the house down, as did an emotionally charged rendition of “Georgia Rain” with backup singer (and one of the song’s writers), Karyn Rochelle. Brooks came back as she was finishing “She’s in Love With the Boy”, with a kiss-cam running on the big screen throughout the song.
The last stretch started with a heartfelt version of “Shameless”, followed by a frantic version of “Callin’ Baton Rouge” that he introduced as his favourite song to play live. Throughout the night he had a sweet self-deprecating sense of humour, and he introduced the classic “Friends in Low Places” by pretending that his guitar was only a prop to hid this gut, and that it’s not usually plugged in (but it is). The song featured the famous “secret” third verse that’s not on the album, and judging from the crowd’s singing, it’s not a secret anymore.
As an encore, Brooks offered a fantastic version of his early hit “The Dance” that totally smoked the studio version. As a matter of fact, pretty much each song he played transcended its original. As I’m writing this review, I’m playing his double live album, and I’ll boldly proclaim his Ottawa concert to be in every shape and form superior to those versions.
Following this song, he took some requests from fans with signs and played a bunch of songs, mostly solo on his acoustic guitar. After one woman gave him a personalized Team Canada hockey jersey he wore for the rest of the show, he said “Where I’m from it’s custom to give something back. Let me find something to sign for you”. And when he couldn’t find anything, he just signed his guitar and gave it to her! And despite his claims that people just wanted to hear the old stuff, two of the requests were for songs from his latest album; maybe he’s not all about nostalgia yet!
After playing quite a few (“It’s going to be a long night!” he proclaimed at the start), he launched into a spirited version of “Standing Outside the Fire” to finish the night with a bang.
It’s pretty amazing that Garth Brooks managed to do two 2:40 shows in one day and never slowed down. The show was perfect on every level, and each fan left with a smile. It’s also worth mentioning that he keeps all tickets affordable (every single ticket was 80$) and merchandise was low priced too.
I can finally scratch Garth Brooks from my “must see live before I die” list. It was about time.