DETROIT -- The music world, country or otherwise, is considerably different world than when Garth Brooks last played in the metro area during May of 1996 at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
There were no iPhones and iTunes. No Bro Country and Hick-Hop. No Taylor Swift.
What hasn't changed, however, is that Brooks is still a hellaciously entertaining performer, which he proved yet again on Friday night, Feb. 20, with the first of his six shows at Joe Louis Arena.
He may have a little more (self-acknowledged) paunch and just a bit less voice than he did before, but Brooks showed he still knows how to deftly weave together all the ingredients -- many of which he borrowed from the rock world during the 90s, indelibly changing the way all country acts approach live performance -- for a high-impact, full-scale party over 26 songs and two hours and 20 minutes. He's now an elder statesman and icon, but Brooks hasn't lost the polished and infectious exuberance that on Friday made him look like he was enjoying himself more than anybody else in the building.
Brooks is ostensibly promoting a new album -- "Man Against Machine," his first in 13 years -- but he introduced Friday's show as "Garth 101," focusing on old favorites, save for three songs, that had the near sell-out crowd (which included Kid Rock and "Sons of Anarchy's" Mo McRae) singing along from start to finish, including Brooks' wife Trisha Yearwood's four-song mid-show set, with no need for coaxing or coaching. And the black-hatted Brooks egged everyone on as he worked the full 360 degrees of the stage, part performer and part carnival barker as he made eye contact with seemingly everyone in the place and howled to the heavens with pleasure at the end of every song.
After opening with "Man Against Machine's" title track, Brooks asked the crowd -- as if he had to -- "Do you remember the old stuff?" -- and was off to the races with a breathless blitz of "Rodeo," "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," "The Beaches of Cheyenne," "The River," "Two Pina Coladas," "Poppa Loves Mama" and "Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up")" before slowing, momentarily, for "Unanswered." Each song, in fact, felt like its own Special Moment, whether it was the melodic majesty of "That Summer," the fierce drama of "The Thunder Rolls," Brooks and Yearwood's duet on her "In Another's Eyes," his powerhouse rendition of Billy Joel's "Shameless," the frenetic romp through "Callin' Baton Rouge" and the grinning schtick of "Friends in Low Places."
But even amongst those Friday's show had other notable moments. Backing vocalist Robert Bailey and tour chief TC Bailey's birthdays were recognized during the show --- the latter getting a pie in the face after Brooks and Yearwood sang "Happy Birthday" to her. And Brooks and Yearwood finished the show with an acoustic duet rendering of her "Walkaway Joe," not something that happens every night on the tour.
Brooks also accepted a customized Tigers jersey from a fan, donning it before that final encore. "Are you gonna wear that jersey home?" Yearwood teased? "Only 'til I get there," Brooks answered.
Brooks did acknowledge Detroit's place in his career as one of the first places he played (at the Downtown Hoedown) after the released of his debut album in 1989. On Friday after recounting his subsequent appearances, he proclaimed that, "Coming back to Detroit is more than I remember. You can tell everyone it's on!" But he'll be hard-pressed to make it much better than he did on Friday.
Some tickets remain for Brooks' next five shows, at 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21 and Feb. 28, and 7 p.m. Feb. 27. All tickets are $66. Call 313-471-6606 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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