In 1998 Garth Brooks played nine concerts in nine days at the Target Center. I attended a grand total of zero shows. It’s not that I wasn’t into his music—if you had functioning ears in the ‘90s you couldn’t help but hear it and, if you had a pulse, like it—I was just too into high school posturing to declare that anything less than a Soul Coughing show was right for me. Turns out it was my loss because not even a year later he gave up touring and hasn’t performed at the Target Center, or much of anywhere, since.
In the time between then and now I’ve graduated high school, gone to college, met my future wife, finished college, interned places, acquired a dog, moved to California for grad school, gotten married to my formerly future wife, acquired another dog, finished grad school, became a teacher, stopped being a teacher, moved back to Minneapolis, became a journalist, bought a house, had a daughter, sold a house, bought a new one, had another daughter, and generally not thought a whole lot about Garth Brooks.
So far from my consciousness has Garth fallen that, aside from the occasional random car radio encounter with a song like Callin’ Baton Rouge, I hadn’t thought twice about the man you couldn’t avoid in 1998. (It’s funny how 16 years of relative silence from a superstar can leave you forgetting just how monumental he is even if he is the second-best selling American solo artist of the 20th century (Elvis is first) and eclipses THE FREAKING BEATLES as the top selling act of the past 20 years.) So when his first world tour in my adulthood was announced this summer and even in September when his Target Center shows went up in number from four to 10 to 11, I barely flinched.
Barely. But I was curious. What is a Garth Brooks show like in person, especially now that Garth is 16 years older and, as he said in the press conference prior to the first Target Center show, “50 pounds heavier”? So I requested tickets.
I’ve always thought Garth Brooks looked a bit like my uncle Sean. They’re about the same age, carry the same “formerly-athletic” build, and they’ve both lost hair and grayed at about the same rate. Which isn’t so much to say that my uncle looks like a country rock star, but that Garth Brooks looks like a middle-aged car dealer. That thought was 100 percent supported last Thursday at his press conference where his wardrobe of slouchy jeans, a Dr. Pepper hoodie, and a ball cap only underscored his likeable, albeit aw-shucks charm. And as I waded headlong through a downtown Minneapolis awash in rabid Brooks-ites that evening en route to the first of his Minneapolis shows, I couldn’t help but wonder how Garth could possibly transform from my uncle Sean to the on-stage immortal that illicited such fervor.
And then, at roughly 7:55 p.m. the house lights dimmed and this happened:
The four-sided video screen in the middle of the stage began to flicker and the PA skipped, almost like it was losing its signal. At first the crowd ignored what seemed like an equipment malfunction, but then a robot voice broke-in and said something nondescript about the “rise of the machines.” I can’t think of a bigger WTF?! moment at a country music show, but before anyone could process it long enough to actualyl question it, the entire arena was snapped to attention by a bomb-like countdown ticker that appeared and started from 60.
By the time it hit zero the entire arena had worked itself into a frenzy that proceeded to amplify when one of the most recognizable profiles in all of country music was projected onto the screen. Next there was a brilliant plume of smoke that lingered for a moment until, poof, there standing in the middle of it was the Garth Brooks of legend who only 10 minutes earlier I’d doubted even existed. By the time he got to his second song, Rodeo, he’d already hit a furious, frenetic stride unlike any I’ve ever seen in concert. And when he outstretched his arms, looked to the rafters, and let out a joyous banshee cry, what pessimism I had left was replaced by goosebumps.
As two songs turned into three and three into four, impossibly, the momentum just kept building. Beaches Of Cheyenne, Papa Loved Mama, Unanswered Prayers; Garth’s songbook peeled forth and with it came layers of raw emotion so pure and huge from the increasingly non-everyman everyman, that you couldn’t help but wonder how this guy was going to make it through the evening, let alone five more shows in the next 96 hours.
At almost every pause Garth would push up his hat and, mouth agape, spin on his heels as flabbergasted with us as we were with him. “This is going to be fun, people! This is going to be fun!” he said after the first three songs. And a few songs later added, “I’ve seen more Garth Brooks shows than anyone in here and you’re starting out way too fast.” At which point a mischievous glint lit burned through his eyes and he barreled headlong into Ain’t Goin Down Till The Sun Comes Up to 20,000 people, myself included, totally losing their minds.
Only then did the thunder roll and with it the real essence of the showman. In his meta, talking about the experience of a Garth Brooks show while actually attending a Garth Brooks show way, he prefaced the 10th song of the evening by describing that people drive a long way just to hear that one song, which is why he was going to do his best to make it memorable. And, oh, was it ever. There was something about hearing that familiar thunder sound effect lead-in everberating through an already electric arena that made me take a heavy gulp and finally succumb to the fact that maybe Garth’s greatest gift is his ability to make you forget that the uncle Sean version of himself ever existed.
By then Garth had us so wrapt that he could have played the theme song from Sesame Street five times and I’m certain we would have loved it. In fact, over the course of the next 15-plus songs, the only real lull came when he brought his wife and one of the most lauded female country artists of the last 25 years, Trisha Yearwood, out for a 4.5 song swing where he bled into the background on acoustic guitar while she played hell out of some of her craziest ear worms (How Do I Live Without You and Prizefighter among them) and yet could barely get a blink out of the crowd. The reaction or lack thereof had nothing to do with her performance, which was exceptional, but simply with the fact that, perhaps unfairly, she wasn’t Garth Brooks and that's who we were all now accustomed to.
When Trisha was done, Garth held nothing back as he ripped through hits such as Callin’ Baton Rouge and Friends In Low Places with such pure joy you’d think it was the first or last time he’d ever played them. Interchanged with self-effacing quips like the one about how his guitar wasn’t always on but still important because it covered up his belly, he climbed on the gyrosphere drum cage, he laid on the floor and played the beginning of a song, he took selfies with fans in the front row, and he played to the crowd in front of the stage, in back of it, and on the sides. And. We. Ate. It. All. Up.
And so did Garth. Before the night was over he called out a handful of people in the audience who he’d had his eye on throughout the night, pointing out things about each—the sign they were holding, the hand gesture they made to him when he first made eye contact, the particular songs they danced to hardest—that served to underscore Garth's most indellable gift: his ability to connect with anyone and everyone.
“I SEE YOU!” he yelled at each, as much for himself as for them. And then it was done.