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Garth Brooks recounts his artistic development with free-form show
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Las Vegas City Life. Mike Prevatt

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Garth Brooks recounts his artistic development with a singer-songwriter narrative -- and a whole lot of charm

Vegas showrooms don't do subtle. They don't do minimal. And they especially don't do thoughtful. But they started to flirt with it late last year, to surprising success. Venetian's staging of the one-man play A Bronx Tale was a hit. Seventy-five-year-old poet/crooner Leonard Cohen all but sold out Caesars' Colosseum. And in December, Steve Wynn talked Garth Brooks into a residency at the Wynn, and Brooks talked Wynn into paying him to perform with nothing but a guitar.

This is noteworthy in that Brooks is the only country music artist who can perform like an arena rock star, ostensibly the act people want to see. But it's also noteworthy because every other show on the Strip featuring a pop titan (Bette, Cher, Elton, Celine) has indulged in some level of spectacle, often reducing the focus on the songs and relying on immutable production. Brooks has no backing band, no sophisticated lighting and no costume changes (his hoodie-and-Timberlands look more frat boy than cowboy). He doesn't even have a setlist -- "I haven't got a clue what I'm doing," he announced half-truthfully at the beginning of his Jan. 22 show -- and what he does end up playing is not exclusively from his song catalog (and rarely progresses to the second verse).

Brooks has essentially adapted the format of VH1 Storytellers -- where performers typically divulge the back stories of their songs before playing them -- and tweaked it enough to create a semi-free-form show that would feel unique anywhere he staged it, but is especially singular in modern-day Las Vegas, where the spontaneity of the old Rat Pack no longer exists. Like Wayne Newton down the Strip at the Tropicana, Brooks is using his and others' songs to tell the story of his artistic development. But unlike Newton, Brooks makes himself the least important character in that story. And that is why Newton's show is so insufferable and smug, and why Brooks's show is so revelatory and charming.

Singer-songwriters are given virtually no respect in Las Vegas -- not by most local booking agents, and certainly not by distracted audiences. But even those with the worst attention spans will immerse themselves in Brooks's show, which is less a concert and more a musical conversation. This is partly because he talks as much as he sings -- and that's fine. People like it when their favorite performers talk to them, as long as they don't ramble or delight in the sound of their own voices. That's not a threat at Brooks's show because, half the time, he's mocking himself or flattering the audience -- and when he's doing the exact opposite, the exaggeration hits a perfect comedic pitch. In fact, Brooks is frequently funny on stage. At least one new-school country star has eschewed over-earnestness.

But even if Brooks isn't strictly speaking a singer-songwriter -- he has always worked with writing collaborators -- he has created a show that honors them. He explains the "dir-T" acoustic bottom-end of his hit "Rodeo" by playing Cat Stevens's "Wild World," reveling in the fact Stevens isn't even a country artist ("... or is he?" Brooks asks, with a Homer Simpson-like rhetorical pause). After covering "Night Moves," Brooks's observation that Bob Seger "put that dark blue hue on something, and you knew it ain't right" placed his domestic violence anthem "The Thunder Rolls" in appropriate context.

If that weren't enough, Brooks also pays tribute to the (not-literally) unsung heroes that penned his biggest hits, triggered on Jan. 22 through a fan question so appropriately timed, you had to wonder if the fan was a plant. Nonetheless, Brooks used the query about his early days performing at Nashville's famous singer-songwriter Mecca, the Bluebird Cafe, as a springboard to acknowledge his debt to tune smiths like Kent Blazy (who co-wrote Brooks's "If Tomorrow Never Comes") and Tony Arata ("The Dance"). "Singer-songwriters are the seeds," Brooks said. "We don't protect them ... but they're everything."

Can you imagine Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson -- all less-successful solo artists than Brooks, by the way -- having said such a thing? No, because their egos (and handlers) would never have allowed it, and it was always about them anyway. Brooks's ego is balanced, if not overshadowed, by his humility, and that's why his audience finds him so endearing. His Wynn show is ultimately a thank-you to his inspirations -- the family that played George Jones in the car when he was young; the songwriters that have contributed to one of the most lucrative song catalogs in history -- which also maps his career arc in the most entertaining way possible.

Toward the end of the Jan. 22 show, Brooks revealed he won't tour arenas again until 2015, when his youngest child turns 18. "Put that show on your bucket list," Brooks said, answering another fan. "It'll make this one look like crap." Hopefully by that point, the "crap" show will have spawned similar no-frills songcraft showcases elsewhere on Las Vegas Boulevard.




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