I really have no idea when I started to like Garth Brooks, but I assume that it happened sometime in college. I had a pretty hardline “no country” music policy back in my high school days that was more about the perception of country music than the music itself. Back then in upstate New York, it was pretty easy to avoid country music as it was much less mainstream and poppy than it is today. Just skip the one country channel on the radio and you could pretty easily live a country-music free lifestyle if you chose to do so. I really hadn’t even given country music a chance, but had quickly dismissed it as not for me.
I wouldn’t say that I became a country music fan in college, but I certainly softened my stance on the genre during those four years. My freshman year roommate was a fan, so I heard more Reba McEntire and Wynonna Judd in that first year than I’d probably heard in my whole life combined. In the late 90s the lines between pop music and country music began to blur as the sound of country evolved – it was less twangy and more and more country music acts were crossing over on the charts. One of the artists that was at the foray of this shift in country music was Garth Brooks. “Friends in Low Places” was a mainstay of my college experience as it was in regular rotation at one of the bars we frequented and was probably my first exposure to Brooks; it’s a great song particularly after you’ve had a few beers and everyone loved singing the line “Think I’ll slip on down to the Oasis” as that was the name of a particularly dodgy motor inn in Oneonta at the time. That song proved to be my gateway drug to Garth Brooks particularly and country music generally. When a fellow non-country music fan told me that he’d seen Garth Brooks in concert and that it was honestly one of the best shows that he’d ever been to, I decided then and there that was something I also had to experience. It just took me nearly 20 years to make that happen.
Of course, part of the reason that it took so long to see Garth Brooks was that he essentially retired from touring for 14 years in order to spend more time with his children. It’s kind of hard to see someone when there are no opportunities to do so. I assumed that he would probably go back out on the road eventually, but that wasn’t a given – perhaps his bewildering “Chris Gaines” experiment really was the end of the road for him. When he announced in 2014 that he was releasing a new album and a worldwide tour I was excited, but also a little frustrated as none of the shows were particularly close to me and all involved traveling in the winter. I didn’t want to buy tickets to a show in Boston and then have to worry about driving there in a snowstorm in order to attend (which was fortuitous as a major storm did hit New England that weekend). When a second leg of tour dates were announced for early 2016, the same concerns applied so I didn’t buy tickets to the show in Worcester. I then promptly forgot about it until I saw a tweet from the DCU Center about Garth coming the week of the concerts. Since the weather was looking to be clear, on a lark I decided to see if there were any tickets available. The only seats that they had left were single seats, but that wasn’t a deal breaker. I recruited my friend Kristin to go with me and perhaps the promise of her not having to actually sit with me during the show was enough to make her agree. So with less than 24 hours to go before show time, an impromptu road trip was planned.
When we arrived at the DCU Center, one of the first things that we noticed was how diverse the crowd was. While there weren’t a ton of people of color in attendance, there seemed to be a pretty wide spectrum in the age and socioeconomic background of the fans. There were a lot of families – many kids had signs saying that this was their first concert – and while there were plenty of people in cowboy hats and boots, there were also plenty of people wearing t-shirts for rock bands. I guess this is a testament to Garth Brooks’ crossover appeal; I wasn’t the only person there that probably would have been out of place at a Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean concert.
There were also plenty of people in attendance who don’t go to concerts regularly, since I heard some people in my section complaining that the show didn’t begin shortly after the stated start time on the ticket. As a concert pro, I knew that if the “start time” said 7 pm that it was unlikely that Brooks would step out on the stage until closer to 8:30 pm (he came on at 8:25; this isn’t my first rodeo). Singer/songwriter Karyn Rochelle was the opening act and though I wasn’t familiar with her, she was very good. She wrote a bunch of hits for Trisha Yearwood and Kellie Pickler ad she also serves as a backup singer for Garth. She appeased a restless audience for a while, but the crowd was ready to see their headliner.
When Garth Brooks finally took the stage, the arena erupted in perhaps one of the biggest ovations that I’ve ever seen. The DCU Center isn’t a particularly large venue, but the roar of the crowd was intense and never really let up. Brooks hadn’t played in Worcester in 19 years and these people were ready for him. It was very cool to witness.
Brooks responded in kind by bringing a whole lot of energy. He definitely is a performer and he was running and jumping all over the stage from beginning to end. I got a little nervous with some of his jumping around, given my recent streak of injuries, but he seemed to be having an absolute ball. The show had more the vibe of a rock concert than I had expected; perhaps this is just my ignorance of country music concerts, but I had anticipated it being a little more mellow and less of an audio/visual component. That certainly wasn’t the case with Garth Brooks; things occasionally slowed down for the ballads, but then things got ramped right back up again. That dude must have been exhausted afterward.
I was also impressed with the audience interaction; throughout the night, the audience was called on numerous times to sing the chorus of songs and it sounded really cool. I could occasionally participate, but since there were some songs where I didn’t know the correct lyrics I got to just sick back and take it all in. Perhaps it was the smaller venue or the enthusiasm of the fans, but it really, really worked.
Brooks knows what the people wants and said as much at the beginning of the show – he’d be focusing on his hits and less on the material from his new album. He did a few songs that I didn’t know, since my working knowledge of Brooks is mostly from his Greatest Hits double album, but for the majority of the time he was on stage he cranked out the tunes that even a casual fan like me would know. He was actually flying though his hits so quickly that I wondered what exactly he was holding back for an encore.
About halfway through the show, Trisha Yearwood came out to duet with Brooks on “In Another’s Eyes.” Yearwood than stayed on stage to do a few of her songs. I wasn’t too excited about her addition on the bill simply because I didn’t think I actually knew any Trisha Yearwood songs, but that turned out to be an erroneous assumption on my part. I’d forgotten that she had also sang “How Do I Live” – I’m more familiar with the LeAnn Rimes version – and I knew “She’s In Love With The Boy” even if I didn’t know that she sang it. So while I was expecting her portion of the show to be boring to me, I quite enjoyed it. It was just the right length – long enough to give Garth a break but short enough to not disrupt the flow of the show. For me, her presence was a nice bonus to the experience.
For the “encores,” Brooks mixed it up a little and played songs that people requested by holding up homemade signs. These tended to be songs that I was less familiar with and while he didn’t play the entirety of the songs that were requested, I did like everything that I heard. These weren’t deep cuts, but songs from his albums that mostly were not released as singles. He then also did some covers, which I always appreciate since it adds a little spontaneity to the concert experience and gives you something beyond what you would hear if you just sat home listening to the album. Brooks covered songs that I really like – Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and Don McLean’s “American Pie” – so I really enjoyed hearing a new twist on songs that I am already really familiar with. He ended things with an enthusiastic rendition of “Standing Outside the Fire” and after nearly 2.5 hours of music, the show was over. I left the arena more than satisfied and it’s the most fun that I’ve had a show in a while. It’s always nice when an artist lives up to expectations and Garth Brooks did that in spades. I can cross that off the old bucket list with a smile on my face.
At this point, I think I am officially running out of people that I want to see perform live. I knocked out four that were on my list last year – U2, Jack White, the Rolling Stones and Foo Fighters – and in 2016 I’ll get to cross Garth Brooks and Adele off as well. I’ve been to so many concerts that I may have exhausted my wish list. I’m fortunate that almost all of my “bucket list” concerts have been really great experiences. Garth Brooks was definitely worth the wait.