Ed Masley, The Republic | azcentral.com 4:56 p.m. MST October 17, 201
Watching Garth Brooks turn a room the size of Talking Stick Resort Arena into the rowdiest honky-tonk in Arizona, it was easy to see how the legend was able to come out of retirement and fill that room not once but six times in two weekends after 19 years without a Valley concert.
Friday's performance was the first of those six concerts and Brooks had the overjoyed audience in his corner from the time he hit the stage and led his bandmates in a powerful, high-energy performance of the title track to "Man Against Machine," his first album back from retirement, running around the stage in faded blue jeans and a bright red shirt that would be soaked in sweat before the night was through, a black Stetson topping his head.
The man's enthusiasm for the task at hand is as contagious as his biggest hits. And he can clearly work a room, a charismatic blend of down-home country singer, televangelist, rock star, career politician, motivational speaker and more than a little bit of professional wrestler (it's in the way he stands there screaming with his fists clenched while the crowd goes wild between songs).
And the crowd went wild between songs after nearly every song. Brooks held a press conference at Phoenix Children's Hospital on Friday afternoon at which he noted, with a grin, that if you attended the concert your ears would be ringing afterwards not from the volume of the music but the screaming of the fans. He wasn't kidding, although to be fair, he did spend much of Friday's concert stoking the flames of their support, pitting one end of the room against the other in a cheering contest or just standing there and basking in the glow of their applause with a big goofy grin.
Garth Brooks talks about his return to music during a press conference on Oct. 16, 2015 at Phoenix Children's Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz.
Brooks himself is no fan of performers who go on tour and put the focus squarely on their new material, introducing 1995's The Beaches of Cheyenne," four songs in, with "When I go to see the guys I love and when I go to concerts, I come to hear the old stuff. That's why I go to concerts. Yes, we have a new album. Yes, we know a little bit of new music. But we brought all the songs hopefully that you came to hear."
And sure enough, after setting the tone for the show with the opening track of last year's model, he set it aside and gave the fans a hit-filled overview of his career, including such chart-topping highlights as the spirited honky-tonk singalong "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House" and "The River." He ended the show with "The Dance," a No. 1 hit from his self-titled 1989 debut, and launched the second encore with the first song he ever released, an understated "Much Too Young (Too Feel This Damn Old)."
Of course, the singer isn't quite as "Much Too Young" today as he was in 1989, and he'll be the first to admit it. Before "The River," he joked, "You’ve gotta remember, it's been a long time so I'm like 104 years old now. And the only way this big ass is gonna get through six shows in this city is you're gonna have to help me out every step of the way."
And they did end up taking the lead on the chorus. But it felt more like a case of drawing the audience even deeper into the performance than actually needing the help. It never felt like he was straining or losing his voice. And yes, he may have joked that he was wearing that guitar to hide his gut, but the man is in good enough shape at 53 to be constantly moving over the course of a two-hour concert.
He galloped across the stage during "Papa Loves Mama" and even climbed on top of whatever that crazy spherical contraption the drummer was in and then leaped off the front of it during a spirited "Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)," which also found him patrolling the crowd with a video camera in one of his loopier moments.
He built on the momentum of the crowd response to that last song by leading fans in an extended cheering contest, after which he admitted "I love being stupid." Then, he shifted gears and hit them with a heartfelt reading of "Unanswered Prayers."
The singer's wife, Trisha Yearwood, rose from under the stage on a hydraulic lift to sing the second verse of "In Another's Eyes." They brought the ballad to a climax with their arms around each other in matching red tops and sang the final line while staring deep into each other's eyes. It was sweet. And it worked.
Then, Brooks made his exit and Yearwood stayed behind to play a four-song set, screening scenes from her TV show during "XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl)" before leading the crowd in a heartfelt singalong of the "Con Air" power ballad "How Do I Live." They shared a stellar backing band, still led by Oklahoma Dave Gant, Brooks' keyboardist since 1994.
After dedicating "Prizefighter" to anyone who's lost someone to cancer or anyone who's made it through a cancer scare, Yearwood ended her set with an upbeat romp through "She's in Love with the Boy," during which she turned a Kiss Cam on the audience.
Brooks came out to join her at the end of that one and they kissed before she made her exit as her husband called for one last round of applause for "the incomparable Tricia Yearwood," who, it should be noted, was in amazing voice throughout her all-too-brief performance.
And with that, Brooks dove back into his part of the set with a song that may have been the best performance of the night, a soulful rendition of "Shameless." After a rowdy "Callin' Baton Rouge," the show built to a crowd-pleasing climax with the singalong to end all singalongs, "Friends in Low Places," followed by "The Dance." an emotional ballad that started with Brooks alone on acoustic guitar.
He held back on his biggest bells and whistles for the encore. That's when the drum cage rose up from the stage and started spinning while Brooks started gliding across the stage on a moving walkway during his version of Aerosmith's "Fever," an endearingly goofy spectacle.
He came back for a second encore that started with an understated "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)," introduced as "the very first song we ever had out," and ended big with "Standing Outside the Fire."
It was everything a Brooks fan could have wanted or expected, packed with energy and showmanship and countless opportunities to sing along to any number of the biggest songs in country music's most successful catalog of hits.
Garth Brooks setlist
Man Against Machine
Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House
The Beaches of Cheyenne
Two Piña Coladas
Papa Loved Mama
Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)
The Thunder Rolls
In Another's Eyes (with Trisha Yearwood)
XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl) (Yearwood)
How Do I Live (Yearwood)
She's in Love with the Boy (Yearwood)
Callin' Baton Rouge
Friends in Low Places
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
Standing Outside the Fire