Less than 15 minutes into his unprecedented five-show run at Royal Farms Arena, Garth Brooks acknowledged his tardiness.
“We’ve been all around here, but never smack dab in the middle,” the 53-year-old country star said before promising a fun night filled with “cowboy songs.” He and his nine-piece band kicked into “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” to cheers.
Performing more than 30 songs in over two hours, Brooks made his first-ever Baltimore show count, keeping the near sell-out crowd on its feet the entire night as it waited to hear which song from his two-decade career would come next.
Brooks promised the hits early on, and delivered. He led singalongs of favorites, some his (“The Dance” from his self-titled 1990 debut, the bluegrass stomper “Callin’ Baton Rouge”) and some theirs (playing just the opening notes of “Friends in Low Places” elicited shrieks). He performed them faithfully, while looking like he was having the most fun in the room.
Brooks has a serviceable voice -- not a powerhouse, but warm enough to trust immediately, which keeps his detailed narratives credible and engaging. Most striking was Brooks’ buoyant stage presence. A known sports fan, Brooks illustrates the type of fun on stage usually reserved for backyard baseball games. After certain songs, like “Much Too Young,” Brooks would jump and pump his fist like he just hit a perfect pitch over a fence. His boyish enthusiasm was charming, especially on sillier songs like the Garth-in-Margaritaville “Two Pina Coladas” and “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up).” He made it impossible not to appreciate his energy.
Smartly, Brooks brought along Trisha Yearwood, his wife, to give the show a needed intermission from the high-octane testosterone. Yearwood, who performed four songs, was all smiles and laughs, just like Brooks. (“31 inches? OK, you beat us,” she said comparing Baltimore’s snow to Nashville.)
As she demonstrated during her biggest hit, the ballad “How Do I Live,” Yearwood’s vocals remain sterling even as she thrives in other professions, like her burgeoning cooking career. (Yearwood isn’t afraid to marry the two. As she performed “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” bloopers from her Food Network show, “Trisha’s Southern Kitchen,” played on the big screen.)
The night’s high-point came two hours in, and after the first encore (“The Fever”). Brooks returned to the stage alone, acoustic guitar in hand, for what he described as the “housekeeping” segment.
Scanning the crowd, he found signs with requests, and performed them on the spot, singing in the direction of the fan the entire time. It was a special way to work in “Every Now and Then,” “The Change” and even some covers like Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston” and Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.”
The set lacked flash, which seemed part of the point. With fans this palpably anxious to see Brooks, pyrotechnics would have felt like overkill.
Throughout the night, Brooks looked moved by the constant reception and singing back. He found ways to connect that were obvious (dedicating a song to a female fan on her birthday) and less so (a fan handed Brooks a bag of peanut M&M’s -- he ripped them open with his teeth, chewed a handful mid-song and poured some out to the front row).
Near the end of the night, Brooks couldn’t help but state the obvious.
“I believe we’ve found a home here,” Brooks said, smirking at the understatement. “We should have been here a hell of a lot sooner.” The screams and applause were proof all was forgiven.