Shortly before his encore Friday night, Garth Brooks let the crowd in on a little secret. The acoustic guitar he strummed so enthusiastically onstage actually wasn’t even turned on for most of the show.
“Yeah,” he said, “the only thing I use it for is to hide my gut,” hitting a pose that was equal parts mock-heroic and schlubby slump – and darned if he didn’t pull it off.
This was preamble to Brooks breaking out the opening riff to “Friends in Low Places,” the 1990 hit that cemented his status as the king of country music in the early ’90s. For about the umpteenth time that night, the mostly full house at PNC Arena went bonkers.
Truly, Brooks stands as living proof that in spite of all election-year evidence to the contrary, the American dream is alive and well. As the Oklahoma native would be the first to admit, he didn’t exactly win the lottery in terms of physique, charisma or God-given virtuosity. But none of that has kept Brooks from turning himself into one of the biggest stars on Earth through sheer force of will. I kept expecting Yakov Smirnoff to appear and declare, “America! What a country!”
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Friday’s show was Brooks’ first in the Triangle since his 1990s run, when he turned country music into mainstream arena-country. Even after a decade of semi-retirement, he’s still got the juice to draw big crowds at a time when fewer and fewer acts can fill big buildings. Ticket demand was high enough for Brooks to book three shows into PNC, a stand that will wrap up Sunday night.
Thanks to his average-guy appeal, Brooks gets the “Everyman” tag a lot. But all-things-to-all-people also applies to his stage show, which is like the PG-rated missing link between the old progressive-country hell-raisers and today’s bro-country meatheads. The show had elements of everything from Jimmy Buffett’s tequilla-soaked beach-pop to ’80s hair-metal, with a cover of Billy Joel’s “Shameless” thrown in for good measure.
More than guitar or vocals, the main instrument Brooks played was the crowd. He roamed all around the 360-degree stage, making sure the people behind it got some attention, too. He grabbed a camera to take video selfies of himself as he sang. And between songs, he’d stand there with his hands on his hips, beaming in mock-surprise as cheers rained down.
“Thanks for letting us come back to the great state of North Carolina,” he said, punctuated with a triumphant howl. He told about playing Raleigh’s Longbranch nightclub way back when for about 20 people, a story that ended, “And then this happens! Thank you so much for my career!” And he led that time-honored ritual, the old which-side-can-yell-louder contest between different quadrants of the building.
“I love bein’ stupid,” he murmured afterward, almost to himself. He was almost enough of a cornball to roll in batter and deep-fry for next fall’s State Fair.
Trisha Yearwood, Brooks’ spouse of more than a decade and a good-sized star in her own right, was billed as “special guest,” but that didn’t mean “opening act.” Her appearance came mid-show with a five-song mini-set, heavily branded. Scenes from Yearwood’s Food Network cooking show “Trisha’s Southern Kitchen” even appeared on the video screens during “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl).”
Another clue to Brooks’ success came during the opening track, 2014’s “Man Against Machine,” a song steeped in technological paranoia. As the band played, the video screen overhead flashed the word “WORK.” And they did, with a set clocking in at 26 songs and well over two hours.
Brooks and band reeled off an impressive string of No. 1 hits -- “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “The Dance,” “Unanswered Prayers,” “The Thunder Rolls,” “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” – and still didn’t get around to anywhere near all of them. And for the closing stretch, they brought the metal.
The encore kicked off with “The Fever,” which had enough of a wallop to qualify as a heavy-metal fiddle tune. The drum kit was in a big squirrel-cage-looking contraption, and of course it rose off the stage during the encore as drummer Mike Palmer played.
Motley Crue could not have done it any better.