Imagine how hard it must have been for Garth Brooks to control himself in Las Vegas.
In 2009, this larger-than-life country star — the biggest-selling solo artist of all time, according to some estimates — ended an early retirement he’d begun nearly a decade before, when he left music to focus on raising his children.
But compared to his nuclear-powered ’90s heyday, Brooks’ return was decidedly modest: a regular acoustic gig at Steve Wynn’s Encore casino. Often wearing a hoodie and ball cap, the singer would strum his way through his hits and covers of oldies by James Taylor and Jim Croce; what’s more, he was taking this low-key approach in a town designed precisely for the kind of high-stakes showmanship he pioneered.
Brooks, now 54, resumed operations more thoroughly two years ago with a new studio album and a full-on arena tour that reached Anaheim’s Honda Center on Friday night for the first of three concerts scheduled through Sunday. And Friday’s performance — which he opened, wild eyes ablaze, with “Man Against Machine” — made it clear he’d been burning to get back to his established ways.
Fronting a muscular 10-piece band, he spent nearly the entire 2 ½-hour show in motion, doing laps around the circular stage, pouring water over his head, jabbing his fingers at people in the audience as he screamed at them. He even climbed atop the spherical contraption his drummer sits in during “Ain’t Going Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up),” a brisk honky-tonk number whose rapid-fire lyrics aren’t easy to deliver even if you’re standing still.
After 45 minutes, Brooks’ dark-blue shirt was already drenched, and so were parts of his faded dad jeans.
Indeed, the singer in middle age is a softer, slightly rounder figure than the Oklahoma heartthrob who once stood next to Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur as Clinton-era sex symbols.
On Friday, he made light of those changes, saying, “I’ve gotta be, like, 104 years old, right?” and claiming he holds a guitar onstage only to hide his gut.
Country music is different too, of course — mostly in that it’s become more Garth-like. Today a large-scale spectacle is the norm; no longer is it unusual for country stars to bellow rock songs (as Brooks did Friday with Billy Joel’s “Shameless”) or to spend five minutes trying to figure out which section of a crowd can be loudest.
Yet none of that made Brooks appear any less energetic. If anything, this appealingly maniacal performance — with rowdy renditions of “Two Piña Coladas” and “Rodeo” and “Friends in Low Places” — gave you the feeling he was making up for lost time.
And in a way he still is one of a kind. Amid the many party songs, cowboy songs and drinking songs Brooks sang Friday, he did a handful of the deeply earnest ballads that set him apart from his younger, more smart-alecky successors — guys like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, whose music comes with a built-in wink about male sensitivity.
For Brooks, there was no veiled skepticism in “The Dance” or “The River.” Nor was there any false drama in the extremely ordinary kiss he shared with his wife, Trisha Yearwood, to finish the brief set she played midway through the concert.
The moment lacked the fireworks Brooks might’ve had in mind. Like his Vegas gig, though, it reminded you that there’s a man behind all those flames.