I felt the Garth move
How the legend is going to quietly revolutionize Vegas
by Steve Friess
Four days ago, I left a theater in Vegas feeling staggered, stunned, disoriented and completely unsure of how what had just occurred had made such a deep, profound impact on me. Even now, I’m a bit in awe that the feeling hasn’t left me, that my mind still moves from one choice moment to another.
So let me just come right out with it: Garth Brooks’ performance at Wynn Las Vegas last Friday was the single best thing I have seen on any Vegas stage ever. Yes, ever. More magical than any illusionist, more dazzling than all things Cirque, more satisfying than even my favorite of our litter of Broadway imports and certainly, by a large measure, more emotionally pleasing than anything any of the A-plus-list headliners at the Colosseum at Caesar Palace have produced.
This is the biggest-selling solo artist in American history on stage by himself for what was supposed to be 90 minutes but became 135 minutes just because he was on a roll and there was nothing to stop him. This was the superstar of superstars deliberately cutting himself down to size by making fat jokes and mocking his own man crushes and challenging himself to carry an entire show on the power of his personality as much as his talent, save for an interlude of one duet by his famous country-singing wife, Trisha Yearwood. (For those keeping score, we got “Walkaway Joe” out of her; another audience last weekend heard two songs from Mr. and Mrs. Brooks.)
I don’t tend to use this space for shows, but when something rises to this level of awesome it occurs so infrequently as to be worth examining in some detail. And what went on in that showroom last week–and what I suspect occurs every night of Brooks’ 300-show, five-year commitment to Steve Wynn–transcends the bombastic affair that a concert has become nowadays.
In short, this is something we’ve never seen in Vegas. It’s 1,500 friends around a campfire with one of the greatest performers of our time and he’s doing whatever he wants and whatever we want and everyone knowing they must savor the ephemeral moment.
And no, I’m not going to lay on the caveat so many have used: “But I don’t even like country music.” I’m not a massive fan and my speed is more Reba McEntire and Collin Raye than Garth and Alan Jackson, but my roommate at Northwestern during our freshman year wore out his No Fences cassette in our dorm room and now “The Thunder Rolls” is heavily associated with that special era of my life.
Most of the media had gone to see Garth in mid-December in his first Saturday, but I was ill. Lucky me, because whatever they all saw, I doubt it compares to what I got. Brooks said as much, in fact. “Opening weekend, all the journalists were there,” he confided to his audience. “Now that they’re all gone, we can get down to it.” And, indeed, anyone seeing Garth on a Saturday, as the press did in December, is missing out because the pressure to do two shows and to end the first one at an appointed time in order to turn over the room means you can’t get free-range Garth.
So here’s the thing: Brooks means “get down to it” in the least Vegas-y sense of the word. He strolls on stage looking like the guy who’s come to fix your sink, in mom jeans and a grey hoodie, topped by a baseball cap and standing in tan workboots. He continuously retunes his guitar in front of you, and he stalks a dark stage alone, telling the story of his musical journey with an infectious zeal punctuated by sudden bursts of sung verses from George Strait or Billy Joel or James Taylor.
The music, though, is strangely almost besides the point, merely a time machine to transport the room to those moments when Brooks was changed or moved. Only a few times does Brooks even sing the whole tune.
You come to Vegas for a unique experience, and that, more than anything else I’ve seen, is what you get with Garth. Not just unique from what you’ve seen elsewhere but unique from what the folks who saw the show the night before would have enjoyed. None of the other resident performers–Manilow, Midler, Celine, Elton John, Cher–decide on the spot what they feel like singing at that moment. Garth spent 90 of our 135 minutes taking audience requests. One lady wanted to hear a 1995 song he wrote to raise money for Oklahoma City bombing victims, another guy asked for a song to which Garth struggled recall the lyrics. Each was an exciting challenge to Garth and one that also reminded even him of the depth of his oeuvre.
Garth at Wynn put into high relief everything that is wrong with the modern concert. Even their encores–once the value-added section reserved for the most deserving audiences–are rote. At the Simon & Garfunkel reunion tour a few years ago, they pretended in their encore that they weren’t prepared as they launched into an obscure number from their first album that they said they hadn’t performed live in decades. Sure, except for the countless times they’d performed it in rehearsals and on tour prior to the MGM Grand.
Steve Wynn, of course, knew what he had with Brooks. Last month, I drilled him as to whether he would commit that showroom to these sorts of unplugged, intimate performances.
“You can’t do it with other people, Steve,” he said. Garth “is so unbelievable when he does it. He walks out with a guitar over his shoulder. The man’s voice, his ability to tell his story, he totally extemporizes. He’s funny, he’s talented, he talks about his history. He talks about Ricky Skaggs to Boz Skaggs, James Taylor to Bob Seger, Billy Joel to Elton John. He sings all their stuff. He does ”˜Against The Wind’ better than Seger does. Best thing I’ve seen since the Rat Pack.”
Well, yes and no. I can think of many performers who could do it and, in fact, when I mentioned Bette Midler he responded, “I think Bette Midler can do anything she wants,” so he agrees, too.
I saw Brooks, fittingly, on the first day of the new decade. This is a new, chastened, less over-the-top era, and Brooks reflected that more sober time. We’re looking for truth, simplicity, honesty, something we can easily understand and something that doesn’t make us feel gluttonous later.
“The question is if I can get them to do it,” Wynn said of making such shows a fixture in that theater with other folks. “I can’t pay them $500,000 a show. Can’t do it.”
Oh, come on now. You’re Steve Wynn. The trick is to make doing this sort of thing so desirable, such a landmark part of a legend’s resume that they must do it, that they feel honored to be asked. Make it like playing Carnegie Hall. Pair up with HBO or PBS for a televised concert series from which a live album could make the performers a mint.
You don’t have to buy everyone their own jet. You simply have to bring them in to see what Garth is doing, the delicious thrill that is readable across his chubby face. If they’re true artists, they won’t be able to resist. And neither will we.