Garth Brooks. Pepsi Center. March 2015
My daughter is pretty open minded about music. She really has no choice with me as her father. That didn’t stop her from informing me that she finds country music to be boring though. There was a part of me that wanted to convince her otherwise, but then I remembered how I felt about country music when I was a little kid. I found it to be boring as well. My grandfather was a cowboy and I just didn’t get his music. My dad listened to everything on the radio, but whenever he put the country station on, I would tune out. Country music just isn’t for kids. How could it be? Good country music is about life experiences — the kind of experiences that the average American kid shouldn’t know anything about. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I began to relate to the stories those old cowboys were telling. I didn’t appreciate the art of country until I was able to listen to a song like “The Dance” and realize it wasn’t about dancing at all.
The loss of innocence can be a sad thing, but gaining real-world knowledge and maturity is also something to celebrate. My country music awakening coincided with the rise of Garth Brooks. My parents had just gotten a divorce and I was living with my dad. He played a lot of Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks during that time. I got sucked in. It was perfect timing though, because all of a sudden country music was cool. Everyone I knew had the No Fences CD – even those who were only listening to rap or metal a few months earlier. My love for mainstream country didn’t last very long, and I know a lot of those artists are to blame for the faux country that followed in their footsteps, but there will always be a place in my life for those songs of the early nineties.
“A melody can bring back a memory
Take you to another place in time
Completely change your state of mind”
Clint Black wrote those lyrics. I can still hear him singing them in my head, even though I haven’t listened to that song in over two decades. That simple chorus sums up why I love music so much. Those three simple lines explain it all. It’s those melodies and memories that drove me to buy Garth Brooks tickets so many years after his importance in my life had faded. It’s those melodies and memories that kept him alive in the hearts and minds of so many fans while he stepped away from the limelight to focus on his family for an extended period of time. And it’s those melodies and memories that allowed him to sell out a record-breaking nine shows at the Pepsi Center over the past week.
Garth Brooks had been gone a long time. When he came back, he did so as a Vegas act. The pop country genre which he helped define had run off the rails without him. In all reality, the man might as well have been a dinosaur. So how did he sell 180,000 tickets for his return to Denver? He did it by making sure every one of his fans, young and old, could attend the show. How did he do that? He priced every seat in the house at $57. As soon as a show sold out, he added another. He kicked the legs out from under the scalpers by aligning the supply with the demand. Then, once everyone who wanted a ticket had one, he took the stage like some sort of machine — night after night after night (sometimes for multiple shows) — performing his ass off like he did when he was a much younger man. I wasn’t planning on attending four of his nine shows, but I did, and I can assure you that his sixth show had the same energy as his first show. The man is a born performer and he made sure that every single person in Denver got what they came for.
There are times when I am a music snob. There are times when I miss sharing that collective love for a song like “Shameless”, or an album like Ropin’ the Wind. That’s why the experience at the Pepsi Center was so uplifting. The arena was filled with real people. There were those who were living the American Dream. There were those who were still struggling to achieve it. And there were those who didn’t even believe in it anymore. “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “The River” are songs that transcend money and class and (even though it was a predominately white crowd) race. Garth could have performed a couple stadium shows and charged hundreds of dollars for each ticket, making it an ‘elite-only’ type of show, but he wasn’t afraid of working a little harder to make his money if it meant that ALL of his fans were able to attend. I sat next to people who have expense accounts and go to a ton of events every year. I sat next to a mother and daughter who don’t go to many shows at all. I sat next to a boy who just got back from Iraq and I sat in front of four generations of women who sang along with every song. Every one of those people were just as important to the full experience as any of the musicians on the stage were.
When performing nine shows over six nights, there has to be structure. So it was that each night followed a script, with just enough improvisation to keep things interesting for those who attended more than one show. Each night started out with a countdown, a silhouette of the man himself, and a big entrance to “Man Against Machine”. After that industrial title track from the new album, it was nothing but hits. “Rodeo”, “Two of a Kind”, “The (sing-along with lighters and phones in the air) River”, “The Beaches of (everyone from Wyoming go crazy) Cheyenne”, “Two Piña Coladas”, “Papa Loved Mama”, “Ain’t Goin’ Down”, “Unanswered Prayers” and the version of “The Thunder Rolls” where she kills him in the end. The stage banter during that part of the show revolved around ‘playing the old stuff’, ‘being too old and needing the audience to help’, and the orchestration of the crowd into his own instrument. It was a run of songs that transported everyone back to a time long gone.
The second new track came in the form of “People Loving People”, which was prefaced by a speech about how depressing the news is today. Then he brought his wife out for a duet. They sang “In Another’s Eyes” to each other as they crossed the stage and then Garth took a well-deserved break while Trisha Yearwood took her spot in the light. “XXXs and OOOs” soundtracked clips from her cooking show before “How Do I Live” covered the sounds of people sobbing. “PrizeFighter” was dedicated to breast cancer awareness most nights, but after getting sick a few days in, she augmented that song with “Georgia Rain”, and on one special occasion, an acoustic rendition of “Walkaway Joe” with her husband on guitar. She always ended her set with “She’s in Love With the Boy” though, while people all over the arena kissed each other on the big screen.
The next mini-set held its own against the beginning of the show. This included Garth’s favorite song to perform, “Callin’ Baton Rouge”, and his favorite song overall, “The Dance”, as well as “Shameless” and the kiss-my-ass version of “Friends in Low Places”. You really couldn’t ask for a better closing. This was one part of the show that was just too perfect to edit, so it was the same every night. The first encore was always “The Fever” as well. The elaborate, egg-shaped drum cage began to rise and morph, members of the band were lifted into the air, and Garth continued to ran around like a maniac…pulling energy from the crowd in order to keep everything fresh and full of life for every show.
The second encore is where Garth got a little creative with the setlist. Each night ended with “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” and “Standing Outside the Fire”, but he also liked to pepper the performance with other selections to make each night unique. I really enjoyed his covers of “Night Moves” and “Amarillo By Morning”, but when he sang “Mom” directly to a mother and daughter who were sitting behind the stage, it was hard not to get emotional. The daughter was holding a sign pointing at her mom that said “The Last Time We Were All Here, I Was In Her Tummy –>”. The fact that he took the time to ask their names, and sing that particular song, just goes to show what a good guy (and aware performer) Garth Brooks really is. One night he thanked the audience and God for allowing him to take time off to take care for his own babies, but then be able to come back. Maybe it’s all an act, but the guy seems seriously humbled by his fans and their love for his songs. I don’t have much invested in that song “Mom”, and I don’t know if it will ever invoke strong emotions in me, but I know it will for Stacie and Jessica. That mother and daughter will never forgot that moment or that song. That melody will always bring back that memory for them.
There were around 18,000 of us in the arena for each performance. We were all there together and it was amazing. But once the songs started, only our collective voices were present. We all went different places as we sang along with each other…
“And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance”
As we danced in the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado, our minds converted those melodies to memories, and those memories took us back to a time and place where things were good…and bad…and beautiful…and ugly…and sad…and different. They took us back to a place we wouldn’t change if we could, because it led us to the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado — with our wives, our husbands, our mothers and our fathers, our children and their children, our friends and their friends…and our memories…and Garth Brooks…and his melodies.
Standard Setlist: (performed every night)
Man Against Machine
Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House
The Beaches of Cheyenne
Two Piña Coladas
Papa Loved Mama
Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)
The Thunder Rolls
People Loving People
In Another’s Eyes (with Trisha Yearwood)
XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)
How Do I Live
She’s in Love With the Boy
Callin’ Baton Rouge
Friends in Low Places
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
Standing Outside the Fire
Other Songs: (peppered into select performances)
To Make You Feel My Love
If Tomorrow Never Comes
Amarillo By Morning
Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy
She’s Every Woman
What She’s Doing Now
In Lonesome Dove
Good Ride Cowboy
We Shall Be Free
PrizeFighter (part of standard setlist until she got sick)
Georgia Rain (with Karyn Rochelle)
Walkaway Joe (with Garth Brooks)