Garth Brooks lived up to his fans' most ardent expectations from the moment he took the stage Thursday (Dec. 16) evening at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena for the first of two shows.
He didn't swing from a rope or smash his guitar, but, otherwise, Garth 2010 was pretty much like Garth 1990 -- bursting with energy, effusive in his praise of the audience and in complete control of the situation.
It is a measure of his appeal that the crowd stood and cheered throughout the entire show. (The last time this writer witnessed the same level of enthusiasm was when Michael Jackson played the University of Tennessee stadium in Knoxville in 1984.)
"Oh, I have missed you guys so much," Brooks gushed three songs into his set as rapturous cheers grew into a sustained roar. Although there were security guards on duty, they kept a low profile while fans pushed up against the edge of the shoulder-high stage. To accommodate ticket demands, seats were sold on all sides of the arena, even in back of the stage.
At a press conference held four hours before the show started, Brooks reminded reporters that everyone involved in his nine-concert series at the Bridgestone is working for free in order to donate as much of the money from ticket sales as possible to the Nashville flood relief fund.
Brooks estimated the expense of mounting the nine shows would be $300,000 to $400,000, compared to the more than $3 million it would take if the shows were for-profit events.
It was pretty barebones staging. A flying saucer-like object, ringed with flashing lights, descended from the ceiling belching smoke to herald the star's arrival. In the thick of this smokescreen, the seven-piece band and three backup singers came out. Finally, a section at the back of the stage elevated and, after a few dramatic moments, it went back down, leaving Brooks standing there.
Clad in a black hat, rust-colored, long-sleeved shirt and black pants, he opened with the raucous, pulse-pounding "Rodeo," his No. 3 hit from 1991.
"Thank you for letting me come home to the great state of Tennessee," he shouted.
One of Brooks' band members was singer-guitarist-fiddler Stephanie Davis, who opened shows for him in the early '90s and co-wrote his anthemic "We Shall Be Free."
Brooks followed "Rodeo" with "Papa Loved Mama" (1992), "The Beaches of Cheyenne" (1995) and "Two of a Kind (Workin' on a Full House)" (1991).
Then he circled back to his 1989 breakthrough hit, "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)," and the crowd, many of which looked much too young to remember either reference, still cheered when he got to the line about "a worn out tape of Chris LeDoux."
After a suitably curtain-chewing rendition of Billy Joel's "Shameless" (1991), Brooks allowed his band to leave the stage. Assuring the audience he didn't mean to brag, he told them that people from all over the world had been flying in to hear him sing in his series of one-man shows in Las Vegas.
"You don't know how many miles I traveled to hear you sing," he emphasized to the Nashville crowd. With that, he invited them to accompany him on "Unanswered Prayers" (1990). And they did, singing every word unaided.
With the band back, Brooks steamed on through "We Shall Be Free" (1992) and "The Thunder Rolls" (1991), the latter accompanied by stormy lightning and sound effects.
Brooks then brought out his friend Steve Wariner to sing "Longneck Bottle" with him, the 1997 No. 1 single Wariner co-wrote. Wariner took the spotlight for a solo version of his 1985 hit, "Some Fools Never Learn," and wrapped up his segment by harmonizing with Brooks on "Callin' Baton Rouge" (1993).
Brooks had the crowd swaying and singing along again with "The River" (1992) and his masterpiece about sexual initiation, "That Summer" (1993).
As he launched into the Grammy-winning "In Another's Eyes" (1997), Trisha Yearwood came out to join him. They milked the song for every ounce of emotion, coming close, then moving apart and finally standing lip to lip as the crowd all but hyperventilated.
Yearwood took a solo turn with "She's in Love With the Boy," her 1991 debut hit, as Brooks stood at the back of the stage, looking on admiringly.
Brooks told the crowd he had known Yearwood -- who became his second wife in 2005 -- for 24 years and that she had sung on most of his records. She then joined him in singing his most recent No. 1, "More Than a Memory" (2007).
Turning to his guitar, Brooks slowly began strumming the first chords of "Friends in Low Places," and the crowd erupted. When it came time for the final verse -- the one not recorded for the 1990 hit single -- Brooks said, "So far, you've known every word of every verse of every song, but do you know the last verse of this one?"
Of course they did, and they yelled out the final line -- "You can kiss my ass" -- with all the gusto Brooks knew they would.
At this point, a squad of roadies who looked like uniformed space invaders, ran onto the stage, sprayed the crowd with confetti guns and just as quickly ran off.
Brooks concluded his set with his career-making "The Dance" (1990) and followed with a valedictory run around the stage before bowing and walking off.
Even though it was 9:13 p.m. when he exited and a throng was waiting outside for the 10 p.m. show, the audience cheered and chanted until the band and Brooks returned for the high-energy finale, "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)" (1993).
This time, Brooks bade his farewell by walking along the stage and bending down to touch as many up thrust hands as he could reach.
Sensing there would not be a second encore, the crowd began filing out. But the human traffic, moving in two directions through a narrow passageway, was so congested, so potentially hazardous and so badly managed that there were still hundreds in line on Broadway inching toward the arena entrance when the second show was scheduled to start.
Brooks will perform one show a night on Dec. 17, 19 and 20 and two shows each on Dec. 21 and 22.