Inside Garth Brooks’ First Dive Bar Gig

"I'll Take the Honky-Tonks Any Day," He Says at Joe's Bar

The last time Garth Brooks played Chicago, in 2014, there were roughly 17,500 people there. Tonight (July 15), the crowd was a little smaller, with around 650 fans packed in tight at Joe’s Bar in Chicago. And that’s exactly what Brooks wanted.

Brooks is no stranger to the small stage. In his early days, he played places like Thumper’s, Willie’s Saloon, the Lazy E, Bamboo Ballroom, Norm’s, Graham’s Central Station, the Tumbleweed, and even a makeshift stage set up for a talent show at Oklahoma State University. But Brooks has always maintained that those small stages were a big deal for him.

“For me, there’s no difference between playing for five people or 500,000. None at all. It’s still about getting it down to that one-on-one communication. It’s maybe even a little more nerve-racking to play for five people than it is for 500,000,” he’d said in one of his Anthology books.

In the first of a series of seven dive bar shows, Brooks brought most of his band to back him as he dug deep into his catalog of hits. And he made sure Chicago felt his love. “This town doesn’t do anything normally, right? So I think apeshit is a good thing to do,” Brooks told the zealous crowd. “There is no set list tonight. You’re gonna pick the set list.”

And what a set list we picked. He opened the show with “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” from 1991, then headed straight into his brand new big ol’ summer anthem “Dive Bar.” With a six-man band backing him, his Takamine guitar, his trademark Wranglers and a vintage Bob Seger “Roll Me Away” shirt, the show was solid country music from start to finish.

Instead of saving his breakout hit “Friends in Low Places” for his encore, which Brooks usually does during his stadium shows, he got to it — the ultimate fan singalong — early in the 90-minute show. Then it was time for the crowd to make some decisions. “This is something we never get to do in our stadium shows: take requests. Here’s how it’s only gonna work: I can only talk to one of you at a time. Kim? You have a request? ’The Red Strokes’? See, this is the thing. You have to tell me why,” Brooks told her. “I’ll play you just a little bit. And forgive me, it’s gonna suck.”

From there, the hits from his long and legendary career just kept coming. “All-American Kid,” “That Summer,” “Two Pina Coladas,” “Rodeo,” “Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up), “Beaches of Cheyenne,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” “The Thunder Rolls,” “Standing Outside the Fire” and “Shameless.”

The picture he painted of his early days made it sound like he was bittersweet he’d ever left. “We’d roll into bars, honky-tonks and dives and we had to play like four sets a night. So we’d play the single eight times a night, and each time, the people acted like it was brand new. It was the sweetest thing,” he said, happily leading up to “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” And then there was the ballad that somehow went over really well. “Real crazy story. We’re playing in the honky-tonks, and everything’s real upbeat, right? There was a song that had this long-ass piano intro that we knew was never gonna go over. And people were glued to it.” That song, of course, was one of his most well-loved ballads, “The Dance.”

Brooks gave his band a break then, so he could do some of the covers he mastered before his own songs took off. “Let’s do what we used to do. Why don’t you guys take five minutes,” he told his band. “I want to play you guys what I was playing in the honky-tonks. The greatest voices in country music for me, were Merle Haggard and George Jones. Try to think of being raised on Haggard,” he said as he started in on “Mama Tried.” Then, it was time for Jones. “If you want to know who every singer who moves to Nashville, what they want to sound like, we all want to sound like George Jones.”

Brooks’ dad was responsible for introducing him to to the sounds of Haggard and Jones, he said, but George Strait was one he discovered all on his own. And Randy Travis. And Keith Whitley. And the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was Brooks’ way of leading into a medley of cover songs he does so well: “Amarillo By Morning,” “I Told You So, “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” and “Fishin’ in the Dark.”

By then end of the night, well past the hour-long set he was supposed to stick to, Brooks made sure the crowd knew that this Dive Bar Tour wasn’t some kind of promotional obligation. He was doing it because he wanted to, and he was loving it just as much as they were.

“Everyone talks about stadium gigs and how cool they are,” Brooks said, “but I’ll take the honky-tonks any day.”

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.
@alisonbonaguro