Anticipation was high in the Spokane Arena on Thursday as Garth Brooks fans, doing The Wave to kill time, waited for the country music superstar to take the stage.
The clock on each of the four giant screens onstage that began counting down at two minutes before show time no doubt didn’t help.
When the countdown ended, text appeared on screen:
“Garth changed the perception about what was possible” - Wade Jensen, Billboard.
“RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) Artist of the Century”
A note about Brooks announcing his retirement, then returning to the stage nearly a decade later for a Las Vegas residency and his world tour.
As facts and figures about record ticket sales appeared on screen, the message was clear: We were about to see a legend perform.
The screens began to rise, revealing Brooks’ band, then all of a sudden, there was the man himself, holding the Entertainer of the Year trophy he won at Wednesday’s Country Music Association Awards.
With a wild yell to the crowd, Brooks launched into “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance,” from his latest album, “Gunslinger.”
Impressed by how loudly the crowd was singing along, Brooks said “Oh, you came here to sing!”
He then played “Rodeo,” the lead single from 1991’s “Ropin’ the Wind.”
After playing another older song, “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,” Brooks told the crowd that when he went to concerts, he was just like those in the crowd.
“I come to hear the old stuff,” he said. “Yeah, we have new music, we have a new single, but we also brought the old stuff with us.”
“There’s going to be a lot of cowboy songs,” Brooks added after playing “The Beaches of Cheyenne.”
About 30 minutes into the show, Brooks told the crowd that he was “like 102 years old” and that the only way he would get through his seven-show run at the Spokane Arena was if the crowd picked him up and carried him.
He then had the crowd sing the chorus of “The River.”
But as it turned out, Brooks didn’t need much help.
His lip syncing at the CMAs upset a few fans, but the vocal rest seems to have done him well. Though a little raspy at the beginning of the concert, Brooks’ voice got stronger as the night went on, more than able to sing the “cowboy songs” he promised fans.
Brooks seemed to know that would happen.
“You saw how I was in the beginning,” he said near the end of the show. “You see how I am now. You roll into town on empty, and what you guys do is fill an artist up.
“When I found out we had seven here, I was scared to death I wouldn’t make it. Now, I’m not sure seven is going to be enough.”
But back to the music: “Two Pina Coladas,” “Papa Loved Mama” and “Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up)” all made the set list.
Before slowing things down a bit with “Unanswered Prayers,” Brooks again let the crowd know he was impressed by their knowledge of his older material.
“Since we were last here, the old stuff has gotten older than a lot of you here tonight,” he said.
Calling it a “cardinal sin,” Brooks then took some time to play “old country,” paying homage to Keith Whitley (“Don’t Close Your Eyes”), Randy Travis (“I Told You So”) and George Strait (“Amarillo By Morning”), which featured a beautiful solo from fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly.
Throughout the show, Brooks introduced each member of the band – Mattingly, keyboard player Steve Cox, guitarist Johnny Garcia, steel guitarist Bruce Bouton, bassist Mark Greenwood, bandleader/keyboard player Dave Gant, drummer Mike Palmer and background singers Karyn Rochelle, who performed a solo set before Brooks took the stage, Vicki Hampton and Robert Bailey – with a sincere note about how much each musician meant to him.
Brooks then returned to his own discography, playing “That Summer” (“We should have come back a hell of a lot sooner than this,” Brooks said after hearing the crowd sing) and “Ask Me How I Know,” which was written by show opener Mitch Rossell.
Before launching into crowd favorite “The Thunder Rolls” (though really, every tune was a crowd favorite), Brooks told the crowd about the song.
“Songs are like your babies,” he said. “You release them and sometimes it’s good and sometimes not so much, so you hold it closer like a dad does. This is one of those songs. It had a rough start, but over time it’s got its feet under it.
“If you’ve traveled the miles just to hear us play this song, I hope this is the best we’ve played it.”
Since Thursday’s concert was being recorded for a live album, Brooks then had the crowd sing along to “Fishin’ in the Dark” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which Brooks said was one of his favorite bands growing up.
Brooks then continued with the covers, performing Ashley McBryde’s “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” and the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge.”
Brooks classics “Friends in Low Places” and “The Dance” then closed the main portion of the show.
After returning to the stage for an encore, the singer thanked those who had to leave and told those who could stay they were going to be there a little while longer.
During his encores, Brooks does what he calls housekeeping, performing songs suggested by audience members via signs.
First up was “Wrapped Up in You,” from 2001’s “Scarecrow.” Brooks then indulged a few Don Williams fans with bits of “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” “If Hollywood Don’t Need You (Honey, I Still Do)” and “Listen to the Radio” before singing “The Storm” and “The Change.”
Brooks then dedicated a cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” to the people he spent time with at Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater, Oklahoma, while in college, tweaking a lyric for the audience.
“It’s a damn good crowd for a Thursday,” he sang.
The band then rejoined Brooks onstage for the final song of the night, “Standing Outside the Fire.”
Throughout the show, Brooks took full advantage of the 360-degree stage, running to every corner to wave to seemingly every single person in the crowd.
After moments when the audience was singing loud enough to practically drown him out, Brooks looked out at the crowd, truly in awe of the reception.
Perhaps he didn’t think a Thursday night crowd would be so engaged.
Or perhaps he thought the almost 20-year gap between these shows and his last performances in Spokane had dulled fans’ enthusiasm.
“On opening night, you run through it and try to get a feel of each other,” he said in the middle of the show. “It took about five seconds to feel I was around family here.”
Judging by the number of cowboy hats raised toward Brooks throughout the show, it’s safe to say the feeling was mutual.