Last weekend, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary by going to see Garth Brooks at the Wynn Encore Theater here in Las Vegas. She’s a big fan; me, not so much. The tickets set me back more than some vacations, but I felt it was important to honor the occasion (a milestone number) and to stay out of the doghouse. Also, we had heard the show was special. As it turns out, we heard right.
Garth is one of those performers who is now instantly recognizable by his first name. (Along with Elvis, Cher, Bono, Penn & Teller, and Lassie – okay, maybe it’s not such a big deal.) The Encore is an ideal venue; intimate by Vegas standards – just 1,500 seats – with a clear line-of-sight no matter where you’re sitting. The sound system rivals any I’ve ever heard, right up there with the Beatle’s “Love.” The only downside were the seats themselves, more cramped than even the crappiest bargain airline. I’m not a large guy and I felt hemmed in. I can just imagine how big and tall people felt, especially because the Wynn security team went out of its way to discourage fans from standing. Two enthusiastically inebriated (maybe the two go hand-in-hand) young female fans were given a warning for dancing, then unceremoniously ejected from the theater. I get it. When you pay this kind of money, you don’t want anyone blocking your view. Maybe it’s just my normal anti-authority bent, but the guards did seem to take particular pleasure in throwing their weight around.
But enough nitpicking. This might be the most entertaining performance I’ve ever experienced. That’s saying a lot. McCartney was more historic, especially because the 1993 “New World Tour” was the first time he could legally perform Beatles songs with Wings. Simon and Garfunkel’s 1983 “Summer Evening” concert at Dodger Stadium was tantamount to a religious experience. But Garth put on a show. It was like sitting in a really big living room and having this talented, fun-loving guy entertain 1,500 of his bestfriends. Garth might be today’s hardest working man in show business.
Here’s what I expected: Garth singing and playing his hits. Here’s what I got: A funny, engaging, self-effacing musical, pop-cultural, and personal history lesson, encompassing a five-decade span from the 60s to the present. Just Garth and his guitar, prowling the stage like a big cat, paying homage to his musical influences (everyone from Waylon Jennings and George Jones – his father’s holy duo – to James Taylor, Cat Stevens and even Bob Seger). He’d play a few licks from a song, sounding remarkably like his idol, and then demonstrate how that tune influenced one of his hits. For example, you can draw a straight musical line from Seger’s “Turn the Page” to his own “Thunder Rolls.” Damn. Entertaining and educational to boot.
About halfway through the show, Trisha Yearwood joined her husband onstage to perform “In Another’s Eyes” and “She’s in Love With the Boy,” two of her big hits. I understand it’s not an every-show occurrence. We got lucky. Garth pretended that his feelings were hurt when Trisha got a bigger standing ovation than he did. After she departed the stage, he forced us all to stand and pay him his proper respect. The security team looked disappointed that they couldn’t toss everyone out on their collective ears.
After more than two hours, Garth explained that he wasn’t going to do the normal “encore” thing. Instead of leaving and forcing us to clap and whistle and stomp our feet, we were to pretend that he had just returned from that now-cliché exercise. That’s when he launched into “The Dance.” Except he mistakenly gave us the first few bars of “Tomorrow Never Comes” (which he had played earlier in the evening). In mid-note, he stopped, shook his head, laughed at himself, and started again. It was a final genuine moment in a performance that seemed authentic from beginning to end. Either Garth was having the time of his life, or he’s a darned fine actor. Either way, he’s worth whatever they’re paying him.
On the way out, we overheard a couple of hardcore Garth fans complaining that he didn’t do enough of his own songs. Maybe they have a point. But for the rest of us, the concert was near perfect. He certainly made a believer out of me.