Before we talk about why Garth Brooks can pack 84,000 people into Broncos Stadium and play what he called the best concert of his career, let’s set the stage: We live in an age of bitter white men.
There's the overgrown racist, sexist toddler in the White House, the petulant Proud Boys, the Nazis who don't want to be called Nazis, and the preachers and priests who devote their lives to picking splinters out of other people's eyes and policing genitals. There are the school shooters, the movie theater shooters, the church shooters, the synagogue shooters, the music festival shooters, the thousands of depressed middle-aged white men who die by suicide each year, and the guys at the NRA who'd jump in front of a semi to save all those guns.
Then there’s Garth.
The superstar served as the face of a new wave of country music back in the ’90s, something hopeful. He skipped across stages, with that head-worn mic, from the Grizzy Rose to the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo to Central Park, where he played for roughly 980,000 fans, bringing energy to a genre that had untethered itself from old country but hadn’t yet found its new place. He brought rural and urban folks together to sing along to “Friends in Low Places,” broke charts and made a fortune.
He wasn’t a bitter Bocephus or a cling-to-the-confederacy Charlie Daniels dog-whistling that the South should enslave black people again. Garth was joyful — and sometimes mocked for it. In 1992, the same year the nation boycotted Colorado for being a hate state, Garth sang “We Shall Be Free,” an anthem of liberation from racism, homophobia and religious intolerance. And country music became part of youth culture again.
Flash forward a couple of decades later to bitter-white-man America. Garth, who took prime years of his life off from touring to raise his kids, is cresting over the other side of middle age, with his dad bod turning into a granddad bod — which he nodded toward by lifting his shirt and slapping his belly at a press conference Friday, after someone asked why his career has endured so long.
Heading into Sunday’s concert in Denver, everybody — maybe even Garth — wondered: Can he still move a crowd? Spoiler: He can. And he did.
It started with the setup. The rectangular stage with towering video-equipped columns held four massive screens that brought fans close to the action, allowing him to pack more people in that stadium than any other artist in its history. The stage design lacked the adornments of other concerts — the flames, the inflatable set pieces, and wizardly animations and videos. Instead, it kept everybody’s attention on the performers, who were good enough not to need the gimmicks.
Garth’s hand-picked opener, humble Joe Nichols, whose name has faded in the past few years while his catalogue of songs has played on country radio nonstop, primed the crowd with a sing-along opening set that had one guy behind me asking: “So are all those songs really his?” Indeed, they were. His most famous number, “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” is classic country songwriting that nobody could deliver better.
Even though we belted along to Nichols, the crowd couldn’t wait for Garth. When the five-minute countdown started on the screen, people rushed back to their seats, sloshing beers, and energy filled the stadium.
When Garth finally arrived, he did so facing away from most of the crowd, looking at the people who would spend much of the show staring at his back. Throughout the night, he didn’t perform to one part of the house; he targeted us all, racing around the stage, grinning breathlessly between songs, and singing every bit as well as well as he did in the ’90s. It didn't matter who he faced; we all saw him beaming on the screens.
Whenever he stopped singing, Garth panted so hard he could have been in the throes of orgasm or religious ecstasy — and it was probably a little of both. His breaks rarely lasted as much as a minute before he started in again. He and his pack of musicians, who have been with him since the ’90s, couldn’t have had more fun.
A few times, a raindrop or two would threaten to shut the whole thing down. But it didn’t pour until after the show, as though Garth’s energy beat back the storm.
He sang his hits, from “Friends in Low Places” to “When the Thunder Rolls” to “Unanswered Prayers” to “Shameless” to “Callin’ Baton Rouge.”
He even dedicated a song to one of the music journalists at the press conference.
Doing something nice for a journalist — one of the “enemies of the people” — in a country-music crowd is almost as bold as celebrating the LGBTQ community. And he did that, too. When he sang “We Shall Be Free,” the top rows of the stadium lit up with rainbow-flag colors. Thousands of his fans — wittingly or not — became part of a Pride month celebration. He didn’t say anything directly about it, but the message wasn’t lost.
If two words sum up Garth’s attitude, they’re gratitude and joy. The man wallows in thanks: to God, to his fans, to his bandmates. “I love my life,” he said, modeling something so much better than the whiny white men degrading this country.
He loved his fans. He loved his songs. He even loved us crabs in the press. There’s not enough of that these days.
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In a historical moment where the powers that be fuel their vision with racism, homophobia and sexism, Garth offered hospitality and generosity, two traits America is losing, to 84,000 people.
That he’s still selling out stadiums suggests that maybe it's okay for us to drop the despair. Perhaps he’s right: Maybe in the end, “we shall be free.”
That’s a powerful message, and Saturday night’s performance was a powerful show. Garth agreed. He said it on stage and again on Twitter, knowing full well that praising one city over another can backfire: “Epic is an understatement! Denver, YOU just gave me the GREATEST night of my career!”
I hope every day until he dies is the greatest of his career. He deserves it. Garth gave us something more precious than he received, something everyone would do well to embrace: a sense that the world can be more than a place of resentment, hostility and rage. He delivered unapologetic joy and showed us a better way.