It would be easy enough to find fault with the show that opened Garth Brooks' six-night stand at the USAir Arena.
For starters, Brooks was not in particularly good voice Tuesday night, and his operator-style microphone kept malfunctioning. Moreover, the sound was badly mixed, the spaceship effects built into the lighting rig never really took off and the greenhouse-style drum cage just plain looked silly.
But if you think all that added up to a bad or even a disappointing performance, you'd be wrong. Because what Brooks does isn't about perfection -- it's about heart. And there aren't many singers who connect with their fans as completely as he did.
It isn't just a matter of energy and enthusiasm. From the moment Brooks popped up from behind a white baby grand during the show-opening "The Old Stuff," he gave the sense that he was as happy to be onstage as the fans were glad to see him.
Although "glad" would be something of an understatement, as Brooks' audience was about as rabid as 18,000 or so well-mannered people are likely to be. When Brooks announced, "We are here for two things -- that's to raise some hell and have some fun," his pledge was met with championship-volume hooting and foot-stomping. Later, when he invited the crowd to sing the third verse of "Friends in Low Places," their volume drowned out the band's P.A.
Brooks, of course, worked the crowd like a pro, constantly roaming the stage, so every corner of the crowd had the sense of being connected. Brooks wasn't making an empty gesture, either; he made genuine contact with the fans, offering a wink or a wave or a smile in response to each individual greeting. It's a great way to stoke an audience, but it was totally uncalculated on Brooks' part, seeming to come as naturally as the urge to say "Hi!" to a neighbor.
Nor should we overlook the way Brooks made sure his fans felt like part of the family. Not only did he announce that his mother was there (standing by the backstage entrance, in fact), but he brought his wife, Sandy, onstage, told the fans they were expecting a third child this summer, and chatted away about how happy he was to have daughters. About the only thing missing was a look at his vacation slides.
That down-home demeanor, combined with his aw-shucks humility, is at the core of his appeal. Brooks is a solid enough singer, moving easily from the sentimental understatement of "That Summer" to the yee-ha! exuberance of "The Fever," but apart from his soulful exhortations at the end of "We Shall Be Free," his performance rarely turned a song into something special.
If anything, the songs often carried him. There's so much drama and melodic excitement built into story songs like "The Thunder Rolls" and "The Beaches of Cheyenne" that all Brooks really has to do is deliver the tune intact -- which, of course, he did. Heck, "Callin' Baton Rouge" is so indestructible that when a fritzed microphone rendered half the first verse inaudible, it barely bothered the crowd at all.
That's not to say the show didn't have its share of musical highlights. Fiddler Jimmy Mattingly's fiery solo at the beginning of "The Fever" had the song in overdrive before Brooks got through the first verse, while his duel with guitarist James Garver in "Papa Loved Mama" was almost as much fun as the song itself.
But given the crowd-pleasing power of "American Honky-Tonk Bar Association" and "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)," that sort of musical showmanship is mere icing on the cake. Brooks mainly wanted to give his fans the good-time they paid for, and that was less a matter of music-making than simply cutting loose and having fun.
That's how he manages to sell out six shows in a matter of hours, and why hardly a soul at any of them will come away disappointed.
Pub Date: 4/04/96