BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
A few songs into his show Thursday, Garth Brooks stopped for a moment, bent over to hold his knees and let the audience into his head: “I’m 107 years old.”
The 52-year-old country music superstar is one of the best-selling musical artists in the U.S., but his audience has not seen him in 14 years. That’s because, at the height of his fame, he bowed out, moving to Oklahoma to help raise his two daughters. They are now college aged, which means Brooks is returning to reclaim his title as a cultural behemoth to be reckoned with, one whose supersized personality and savvy business sense are both responsible for reconnecting with an audience over so many years that they will still fill seven nights of shows.
That’s right, nothing Brooks does is small. Thursday was the first of 11 shows over seven nights, four of which he is performing two shows, one in the early evening, and one late. The only other dates on this global tour are, at the moment, in Atlanta, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla. Brooks is able to do this partially because he is charging under market ticket prices (which has been effective in killing the secondary market demand in Chicago).
But he also is circling back to a landscape where his music feels more populist than the more brooding “muscle country” of younger artists like Jason Aldean or Eric Church. As calculating as Brooks can be, he connects as the guy down your block who happens to sell a lot of records. Before singing one song, he tells the audience that the guitar strapped to his body has another important purpose: “It hides my gut.”
A new album is due in late fall, but Brooks emphasized he would largely be sticking to older songs on this tour. The two-hour show rested on that familiarity: He emphasized throughout the night that 10-member band are nearly 20-year veterans of his music. While the show began rather menacing — The harsh metallic thumps suggested that Nine Inch Nails might be behind that curtain — but it ultimately revealed a band that was prepared to entertain.
“It’s been awhile people. We didn’t come to talk, we came to play music!” Brooks shouted. However, he did take time to talk. With his signature black cowboy hat and wireless microphone, Brooks performance was part televangelist, part cheerleader, and all salesman in the House of Garth. He bounded throughout the stage, hopped up and down, fell to his knees and reminded the audience, time and again, how astounded he was that they remembered the words to his songs.
Which they did — This was an audience that erupted at an opening guitar strum or drumbeat. The more traditional country songs from the set — featuring fiddler Jimmy Mattingly and guitarist Johnny Garcia playing significant roles — positioned Brooks back to his strengths, as a singer who could lead a hoedown and make a sports arena feel like a barn dance. Many of those songs led the band into familiar poses – huddled around the pedal steel guitar, or Mattingly bouncing to the front for the solo. There wasn’t much by way of dynamics in their playing, just big and bigger.
Even though he was away for 14 years, a large portion of the audience skewed young. “To you younger people I have never seen in my life, thank you!” he said. However a new song, the crunchy Southern rock anthem “People Loving People,” could have emerged from one of his albums the year most of them were born.
As the evening progressed, Brooks’ boundless enthusiasm became infectious. It was tempered when Trisha Yearwood, the singer and his wife, appeared to perform a mini-set for 20 minutes of pop country hits, particularly “She’s in Love with the Boy,” which was accompanied by — why not? — a widescreen audience kiss-cam.
A few times Brooks unplugged and performed solo acoustic — “Unanswered Prayers” for one. He also ended the show alone on stage with Yearwood to accompany her on guitar for “Walkaway Joe.” Both times were opportunities to get past the layers of bravado to a place that felt more intimate.
Yet this is Garth Brooks, a man known for lasers, fireworks, big screen spectacle, and even strapping himself into a harness to fly a few laps over the crowd. Maybe it’s a sign of his maturing attitude, but this was a largely a show stripped of excess. For “Fever,” the large white orb the drumkit was placed under did lift up near the end, as did other platforms holding musicians. Brooks, however, stayed on the ground, jumping between platforms and — during a very wobbly moment — climbing up the orb to peek inside and wave to his drummer.
The man just couldn’t help himself.