Garth Brooks’ Return: It’s a Work in Progress

But His Las Vegas Opening Is a Success

LAS VEGAS — The first thing to realize on Saturday evening (Dec. 12) at the Encore Theater in the Wynn Hotel is that it’s not a Garth Brooks concert. It actually is a one-man stage show with a guitar as his only prop.

One man in unprepossessing street clothes on a bare stage. No band or taped music, no special lighting, no special effects. No support of any kind. Brooks last performed in Vegas in 1991, when he and Carlene Carter played a country concert at the Desert Inn. Now, his new show is as far removed as can be from any previous Vegas musical spectacles.

As Brooks said during the show, he’s naked up there with only a guitar to hide behind, and the older he gets, the smaller the guitar gets. He last performed regularly almost 10 years ago before his retirement, and these weekend shows amount to a slow re-emergence into the mainstream.

What he’s doing here is essentially a monologue interspersed with songs (few) and musical snippets (many) that lasted, at this show, exactly 100 minutes.

He has started changing his patter and pacing from show to show as this work-in-progress evolves and as he determines what’s working and what’s not working. And, as he remarked onstage, he’s doing this to get back into music and to learn from his audiences. But it’s still only one weekend old, out of a projected five-year run, so it’s impossible to say what it will evolve into. And, his boss/partner here, Wynn/Encore chairman Steve Wynn, was already making noises this weekend about re-evaluating the ticket pricing structure. Currently, all of the 1,500 seats in the theater are $125 each, regardless of location.

There is much precedent for this sort of one-man revue, going back to touring writers such as Mark Twain who went from town to town presenting their tales and their lives on stage. Hal Holbrook re-created that famous writer and character in his production of Mark Twain Tonight. The late singer Peter Allen did a very good Broadway production of Up in One (a theatre term for appearing solo in one spotlight onstage). Unfortunately, it closed after 46 performances. Now, Garth is playing Garth.

If Garth’s production were a Broadway play, it would have opened in somewhere such as New Haven, Conn., before being presented on the big stage. He would have worked out what he wanted to do every night, instead of now figuring it out on the job, as it were. In a sense, this is a nightly workshop, encounter session and karaoke workout.

After the performance, I found that many Garth fans were sharply divided about the show. Some I spoke to were greatly disappointed by their evening and with what they got for their $125 ticket and the cost of their flight to Vegas and the hotel room. Their complaints? His dress and appearance. They felt his jeans and hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap weren’t suited to a big Vegas show. The other big complaint was that many fans came expecting to see and hear a traditional Garth Brooks concert, not the unexpected monologue-with-music-bits that they got.

But many more showgoers liked what they experienced and were delighted to see Garth again. And they said that they will continue to support his efforts.

He opened the evening by talking about jet-commuting to and from Memphis all weekend for his daughter’s playoff soccer matches and what the evening ahead might hold.

“This is about my life and growing up,” he began. “Our career now is over 20 years old, so we gotta play the old stuff. This was the very first.” With that, he launched into part of “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” (which he said he wrote for George Strait and was disappointed that Strait didn’t cut it).

Then came music bits from his father’s musical idol, Merle Haggard, and Garth’s own idols of Strait, George Jones, James Taylor, Bob Seger and Billy Joel. After a full-bore rendition of part of Joel’s “Shameless” and audience karaoke versions of bits of “Unanswered Prayers,” “Rodeo” and “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,” he said gleefully, “I didn’t have to play on ‘Shameless,’ and I didn’t have to sing on those songs. This could be the easiest gig ever!”

His wife Trisha Yearwood brightened the stage with “She’s in Love With the Boy” and “Walkaway Joe” with Brooks playing guitar and adding harmonies and a bit of repartee.

Along the way, he presented a review of late 20th century country and rock, ending up concentrating on his work. And he deconstructed some of his songs, giving fans a glimpse of how the sausage is made. And it was not all smooth sailing. An odd Tiger Woods reference left people just puzzled. And a long James Taylor segment simply lost much of the audience. Late in the show, though, he said, with obvious relief, “Last night was rougher than a cob. This show right now tells me I can do this thing!”

And it’s still very obvious that no one in popular music can work a crowd better than Brooks, and he’s still doing it with sometimes breathtaking efficiency. His confidence is obviously still there. After Yearwood left the stage with two standing ovations, Brooks waited a moment and then quipped, “For most people, that would be impossible to follow!”

I think it’s apparent that Brooks is determined to not turn into a touring dinosaur, like all the old rock groups that are still playing concerts and doing their hits for audiences who don’t want new music from the old geezers. What they want is a reminder of their youth. This is Garth’s way to figure out an alternative to that path.

I have always greatly enjoyed the few times I’ve seen and heard Brooks with just his guitar and voice in a small audience situation. His voice remains a wondrous instrument, and he’s very captivating and quite funny. And for one person to enchant an entire audience for up to two hours at a time just by being himself, there are not many around who are capable of such a feat. For me, Garth Brooks in Vegas is a resounding success. With some asterisks attached.

View photos from Garth Brooks’ opening weekend in Las Vegas.