Saturday, June 25, 2016 | 4:26 p.m.
What happened to the guy who used to play Encore Theater a few years ago? The guitar-packing cowpoke who stood and strummed between a pair of potted plants? The guy who was music's version of “Between Two Ferns,” who goofed around and sang and told his life story with a series of classic songs?
Garth Brooks was his name. He was supposed to be back in Vegas this weekend for shows at T-Mobile Arena. But the man who performed Friday night in the “Man Against Machine” tour before a roaring audience, standing and hollering and holding up signs and such, bore little resemblance to the Brooks who played at Wynn Las Vegas.
To be sure, the talent remains, as does the zeal and that innate capacity to connect with a crowd. Performing arena shows for the first time since his self-imposed hiatus from such wide-scale tours in 2001, Brooks looks right into the eyes of his fans, even those in the nether regions of the arena, and goads them into a fury.
“You all gonna be all right?” He asked early on. “I don’t know if this crowd is pacing itself tonight!”
No doubt, unlike the scaled-back, unvarnished shows of 2009-12, this was a full-blast rock show by a guy who loves to rock the house.
Yep, rock. I have long felt that Brooks is a rock star who happens to play country music. Argue the point if you like, but this show has all the sonic power and visual dazzle of a show by any top rock act you can name. Any. Even as Brooks called out early, “Get ready for a bunch of cowboy songs,” his affection for a wide swath of theatrical live rock bands — Kiss, the Stones and Queen among them — was evident all the way through.
And, as was the case during his run on the Strip, Brooks ceded the stage to his wife and fellow superstar, Trisha Yearwood, who performed a forceful mid-show set highlighted by “Prizefighter,” “Georgia Rain,” “She’s in Love With the Boy” and “How Do I Live,” the latter connected to Las Vegas through the film “Con Air.” Yearwood also nodded to the city when mentioning her acutely sequined jacket.
“I’m usually not this sparkly, but this is Vegas,” she said.
The show’s presentation, generally, was equal to that of any great Vegas spectacle. The staging of this production was unique in that the platform was set in the semi-round of T-Mobile, backed up almost to one end of the venue but playing to the full house. The video panel overhead was used generously, with Brooks grabbing a camera at one point and shooting into the crowd — and this weekend’s show, along with the four-set July 2,3 and 4 at T-Mobile, are being recorded for a concert film of this tour. Vintage footage dating to the early 1990s, showing an apple-cheeked Brooks slogging across the country in a tour bus, also was exhumed. His fans loved that.
More stage appointments: A four-sided video panel surrounds the stage and is raised at the start of the show, and the signature stage effect is the LED-trimmed sphere that encases his longtime drummer, Mike Palmer. At one point, Brooks climbs atop that round cage, playing like a kid cut loose on a set of monkey bars.
Musically, Brooks is undeniably legit, having honed his singing, songwriting and playing skills in such little haunts as Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater, Okla. He works himself into a frenzy, too. Unlike George Strait, who essentially stands straight and delivers songs from four points in his in-the-round setting, Brooks scrambles around the stage as if performing a cardio workout.
Brooks, 54, mentioned in a news conference before the show that he was trying to lose weight for the video of the concert, and if he keeps up this routine he’ll be in fighting form by the end of this tour. As he said, “You’re never at the weight you want to be,” which is something of a universal theme.
Brooks also joked from the stage about his abilities as a musician, that his acoustic-electric, six-string guitar was “not even turned on.” But he has used that instrument and his powerhouse voice to hold a crowd even without the band.
With his backing players back intact, Brooks unleashed the songs he told his fans he would want to hear if he paid for a ticket to the show.
“We’ll play some new stuff, but we brought all the old stuff, too,” he said. The setlist was peppered with the songs his fans can recite, word for word: “Rodeo” is turned loose early, setting the stage for “The Beaches of Cheyenne,” “The River,” Two Pina Coladas,” “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til the Sun Comes Up),” “That Summer,” “The Thunder Rolls” (a raging performance of the song Brooks says is his favorite to perform live), “Friends in Low Places” and “The Dance.”
The crowd was in full throat during “Friends,” yet another infectious and enduring Brooks sing-along, and many fans let the tears roll during “The Dance,” as it seems to have some deep, personal connection to anyone who owns Brooks’ music.
Before he ambled off, Brooks mentioned his long history in the city. He recalled performing at the Desert Inn — where the Wynn and Encore now stand — the Thomas & Mack Center for a series of sold-out shows in 1998, and, finally, Encore Theater.
“Wherever we have played, you have made us feel like Las Vegas is our home,” Brooks said, removing his hat to salute the crowd. “I want to thank you for that.”
We’ve said it before, and likely again: You’re welcome here anytime, Cowboy.