He doesn’t have to do this.
He could stay home and count his money. Or his diamond albums (seven) or Entertainer of the Year awards (five) or whatever you do to fill time when you’re Garth Brooks.
Instead, 20 years after his last show in Albany, the best-selling solo artist in U.S. history rolled back into town for a three-night run at the Times Union Center, prefaced by a feel-good Friday afternoon press conference. Which he didn’t need to do, because he’d already sold 45,000 tickets for the weekend.
So why do any of it? Why the three-year world tour? Why play multiple nights in each town, sometime with two concerts a day? As he showed in his performance Friday night – nearly two-and-a-half hours of big hits, bombast and smiles – it’s just who he is.
The biggest name in country music through the ’90s, Brooks is the one largely to credit (or blame) for bringing the trappings of arena rock to a comparatively staid country music scene. He “retired” in 2001, but came back to work full-time 13 years later, and somehow it’s like he never left. He sells out arenas worldwide, his new singles still chart, and most remarkable of all: The man still moves physical product. In one week last November, he sold 134,000 units of a 10-disc Target-exclusive box set. And it was mainly songs his fans already have! He doesn’t do YouTube or iTunes and only recently cut a deal with Amazon for streaming. In many ways, he’s still doing business like it’s 1993. And it works.
The Friday night crowd – a mix of longtime fans and 20-somethings who were too young to even touch the radio dial when he first hit the scene – was here for a perfect mix of past and present. Even at age 55, Brooks was racing to every inch of his 360-degree stage, jumping from the risers, cheering on his band members, mugging for the giant video screens overhead and riding the spherical drum cage like a mechanical bull. It’s a sight behold.
A country music showman nonpareil, he playfully goaded the audience into giving him all the energy he needed, mixing needling, flattery, and comedy, at one point showing his custom Takamine acoustic/electric wasn’t even plugged in (“I use this thing to hide my gut”). He showed aww-shucks disbelief at the crowd’s enthusiasm, thanked his bandmates and crew members by name, and humbly offered heartfelt gratitude to everyone just for showing up. If it’s all an act, this man is the Daniel Day-Lewis of modern country.
From the raucous reception for the new single “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance” to the sea of waving smartphones on “The River,” the glass-raising “Two Pina Coladas” and the wistful “Unanswered Prayers,” it was a fully engaged arena, and Brooks never let that energy sag. He’s built like a linebacker but runs like a marathoner, pausing only briefly mid-show to step off stage when his wife and fellow country superstar Trisha Yearwood took command for a mini-set. Not a bad way to buy yourself a breather.
The audience was nuts for the Billy Joel cover “Shameless” and there’s no better singalong in country music than “Friends in Low Places.” And maybe that starts to explain it. If the crowds still beg for that cheeky third verse and still want to sing the chorus five times and still scream for hits new and old, perhaps that’s reason enough to keep putting on the exhausting show Brooks is known for and still delivers today.
At the end of night one, he declared “My retiring days are behind me!” and with a keynote speaking gig lined up at this weekend’s SXSW Music Conference, he seems like a man in the prime of his relevancy and fully committed to his craft. With three nights of packed houses, Albany showed it doesn’t want to wait another 20 year to see the craftsman at work again.
Garth Brooks with Trisha Yearwood, Times Union Center, March 10
Photo by Timothy Mack