To many country music outsiders, Garth Brooks is one of life’s greatest mysteries. How has a dad-jeaned balladeer from Tulsa moved more albums in the U.S. than any other artist in the world beside The Beatles? And, some 20 years after his heyday, still selling out stadium tours?
The answer was blowing in the cool wind that cut through Mile High Stadium on Saturday, where a record-breaking 84,000 fans gathered under a slate of clouds to give Brooks what he’d call the greatest night of his career, striking up his 11-piece band to mine an immense catalogue of country-FM gold for a career retrospective.
But first, they had to get there. Traffic was a bear — “Expect Delays: Garth Brooks Concert,” a CDOT sign on Speer read — and then there was the matter of squeezing into the stadium itself. Thirty minutes before showtime, fans cracked beers in a massive line for field seating that snaked around the concourse, bonding over the annoyance.
That would be just a teaser for the human traffic jam inside the tunnel, though, a powder keg of drunk, impatient people jammed into a too-small egress. “I’m gonna puke!” a woman yelled, trying to push upstream toward the exit. Elsewhere, a pair nearly came to blows after one bumped the other trying to slide by. After 10 minutes, the end was near. “I feel air,” a woman said, hopeful the nightmare was almost over.
Sure enough, just as we let out onto the field, it was showtime. Brooks emerged from the floor singing “All Day Long,” cowboy hat flaring in the spotlight. The four LED pillars that marked the corners of the stage, which was in the round, egged the crowd on with a graphic that mimicked a decibel reader. They wouldn’t need it.
“You guys are serious about this one,” Brooks said during one of many taking-it-in moments between songs.
Brooks is as famous for his concerts as he is for his songs, and it’s easy to see why. Throughout roughly two hours of hits –“Two Pina Coladas,” “The Beaches of Cheyenne” and “Thunder Rolls” were in the mix — he played each as if the world was slated to end at a quarter past midnight. If his voice went out, it would have been from screaming in admiration for the crowd, not warbling “The River.” He doffed his cowboy hat so many times it left a black streak on his forehead.
Aside from the typical fan service, Brooks pulled out a few unexpected tributes, too. Over “We Shall Be Free,” the top seating section of Mile High Stadium strobed the colors of the rainbow in recognition of Pride Month. For “Friends in Low Places,” he brought out one of the studio musicians that wrote parts for his hit songs and but never gets to perform them live. It was a high-water mark for the night, as fans sang the choruses sans Brooks — “think I’ll slip on down to the ohhh-ay-sis” — beer raised with a boot on the seat. Charging toward the encore, Brooks again screamed in appreciation, calling the evening “the greatest night of (his) career.”
It’s easy to assume this level of gratitude is disingenuous, and many do. Podcast host Joe Rogan and comedian Tom Segura made a bit out of Brooks’ insanely amiable public persona, insisting there just has to be skeletons hiding behind all those Rockmount shirts in his closet. Right?
What’s scarier — especially to them — is that Brooks might actually just be that pure. Before playing “Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” Brooks explained to the crowd that they’d be recording it for Triple Live, a sequel to his popular Double Live album, a treat to the city he considers one of the song’s earliest adaptors. To make it work on tape, we’d need to make ourselves heard — first, after the intro guitar solo and then again, even louder, after the fiddle solo.
The song struck up, there went the guitar solo and the crowd cheered. Then, after the fiddler took the spotlight, a roar went up you could feel in your spine. Downstage, Brooks hunched over and pinched his eyes, a swell of emotion threatening to burst the dam. It wasn’t a jumbotron moment, too quiet and organic to be taken for anything other than a person feeling a hit of love from 84,000 fellow human beings.
It lasted a second; he socked it away and sang: “To sleep would be best, but I just can’t afford to rest / I’ve got to ride in Denver tomorrow night.”
The verse rang out clear, even if his eyes were a little cloudy.