He stands there, hands on hips, mouth agape, shaking his head in disbelief. He whips his hat off and mouths the word “Wow!”
That was after “Shameless.” You should have seen him after the first three notes of “Friends in Low Places” as he pranced proudly and shouted “That’s what I’m talking about.” Or when he thrust his fists triumphantly over his head after finishing “Unanswered Prayers.”
Garth Brooks has more ways of saying “OMG” in concert than Katy Perry has Twitter followers. Watching him Thursday night at Target Center was like seeing Taylor Swift collect one award after another. After every song, like after every Taylor award, there was an expression of incredulity. After a 16-year retirement to raise his three daughters, Brooks, the once and future king of country music, couldn’t believe the enthusiasm the 19,000 fans showed Thursday.
Hold your horses, big boy, this was just the first of 11 concerts with a record 200,000 people expected. In the next 10 days, there’s going to be more mugging in downtown Garthapolis than you’ll find at a photo booth at a wedding for 500 guests. And Garth is doing all the mugging.
He’s always been a big ham, with a little cheesy and a big slathering of emotion. He may not shake it like Luke Bryan, rock it like Eric Church or kick it like Kenny Chesney. But Garth was Kiss before Chesney was cool. He incorporated arena rock routines into country before anyone else.
At 52 and a self-described 50 pounds heavier, Brooks didn’t run around the Target Center stage as much Thursday as he did last time in 1998 when he played nine shows for a then-record 163,000 people. He didn’t climb a rope ladder to the light rigging, though he did try to climb atop his drummer’s cage (looking like a tentative middle-aged dad scaling a playground jungle gym). He simply didn’t have the abandon of old.
But he still had the energy, passion and, most importantly, the mastery of gestures big and small. He’d point to the folks up in the upper deck or peer into the people down front and doff his cowboy hat when the dude in row 5 waved his hat to salute the singer.
This guy can work a crowd and sell sincerity like Bill Clinton and Bono combined. After “The Dance,” he announced that “I see” the two girls in section 230 who stood all night, the two people in the last row behind the stage with their cellphones on and the five guys standing down in front. Dude doesn’t miss a trick.
Considering what a savvy businessman he is, he surprisingly didn’t give a hard-sell to his album, “Man Against Machine,” which arrives on Tuesday — his first studio album of new material since 2001. He opened with the title song, which had an Eric Church-like metallic edge to it, which is a strikingly harsh departure for Brooks. But the fans seemed so excited just to see Garth that it felt as if the song wasn’t really being heard.
He offered one other new number, his current single “People Loving People.” A message song with simple-minded lyrics, it felt less poetic and artful than, say, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s far from Brooks at his best.
The rest of the 125-minute performance was devoted to oldies, which is what everyone wanted. From the moody, mysterious “The Thunder Rolls” to the beachy party vibe of “Two Pina Coladas,” Brooks surveyed his hits. He’s never been afraid to do ballads like “The Dance” and “The River” in an immense basketball arena because he knows how to make them big. Heck, he screamed “yeah” in the middle of the poignant “The River.”
The fans screamed “Yeah” when Brooks brought out his wife, country star Trisha Yearwood, to duet on “In Another’s Eyes.” Not only did she up the vocal quality but the sparks between these two added a romantic element that he never had on previous tours. She delivered a too-short four-song set, including her new single “Prize Fighter,” a forgettable pure-pop message song about never giving up.
Like the old man fighting the new Nashville machine, Brooks has added more modern effects, including a giant video cube hanging over the stage, hydraulic platforms that elevated various sidemen to new heights and a conveyor belt on which to strut like a cowboy. But in the end, it’s all about Garth being Garth, being humble and hammy, sincere and silly, romantic and rowdy — and making the fans believe that he’s having as much fun as they are.