Country music star Garth Brooks’ accomplishments include 25 No. 1 songs, sales of 135 million albums and 14 albums that debuted at No. 1. By now, 26 years after his album debut, you would think he’d done everything in the music business that can be done.
But there was at least one thing he hadn’t done until this weekend. Friday night at the Smoothie King Center, Brooks made his New Orleans concert debut.
His return to the road last year, following years of not touring, made the long-overdue debut possible.
Friday’s concert was the first of four Brooks shows at the arena, running through Sunday. Remaining tickets for the performances — which also feature Brooks’ wife, Trisha Yearwood, and a band of veteran Brooks and Yearwood musicians — are available through Ticketmaster.
At 53, Brooks proved he’s still a dynamic act. At the start of his opening song, “Man Against Machine” (basically arena rock with a fiddle), he raced over the stage at a risky speed for a guy his age. Fortunately, in the more than two hours that followed, he roamed, engagingly so, more than he ran.
As much as the crowd loved Brooks, he appeared to love it even more. He often basked in the effusive response, drinking in the love.
“We played all around here but never right in the heart of it,” Brooks said, referring to New Orleans. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for you guys.”
Brooks and his supporting players — seven musicians and three backup singers — offered only a few new songs. He explained that he’s like anyone else who goes to see and hear a favorite recording artist — he wants the hits.
“You guys are gonna hear a lot of cowboy songs tonight,” he promised.
That comment segued into the Brooks classic “The Beaches of Cheyenne,” a tragic tale about a wife who drowns herself after her husband dies in a rodeo accident.
Communicating emotion through song comes naturally to Brooks. For example, there’s his inspirational, Bruce Springsteen-style ballad from 1992, “The River.” As with many of the other songs he performed, the audience knew “The River” well enough to sing it without him. A mutual but nonphysical embrace between the singer, who gazed into the upper regions of the arena with his arms outstretched, and the audience happened when he belatedly joined the crowd in singing “The River.”
Along with some quieter, serious songs, such as “The Dance,” Brooks and his band played their party songs. Not afraid to look silly, the singer dangled himself on the atom-shaped cage that surrounded drummer Mike Palmer during the barn-burning “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Till the Sun Comes Up”).
After Brooks and Yearwood gave a heartfelt rendition of their 1997 duet, “In Another’s Eyes,” he left his wife in the spotlight for a well-received, short set featuring some of her hits.
When Brooks returned, he brought the night’s most anticipated songs with him. The good-time, boozy hit “Friends in Low Places” was another selection that the audience knew by heart. Brooks ably returned to his lead singing duties for Billy Joel’s “Shameless,” a big hit Friday night.
“I love this song,” Brooks announced before he performed “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” his bluegrass-flavored smash from 1994. “People always say, ‘What’s your favorite song to perform?’ Hands down, this is it. I can’t believe we finally made it here to play this song.”
“Callin’ Baton Rouge” inspired the evening’s loudest, longest response, as well as chants of “LSU, LSU, LSU.”
“That song has never sounded that good in my entire life,” he said afterward.
Brooks saved most of the arena-rock effects for the show-closing “Standing Outside the Fire.” It’s a testament to him that he didn’t need the lights and smoke that accompanied it. His showmanship and welcoming persona provided more than enough warmth, flash and, most of all, artistry, to delight his fans.