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A new king of L.A. marathons

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Marathon will be run in five weeks, but first, how about the Garth Brooks Marathon?

From 6 p.m. Friday to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, the country star interrupted his retirement to play five concerts at Staples Center in front of nearly 100,000 people, and for a national TV audience in the first hour.

He gave away two guitars and his hat to audience members, showcased his wife, Trisha Yearwood, and bar-band-belter buddy Huey Lewis, and he shared the stage with a Staples concession-stand worker.

He raised a substantial, still undetermined sum for California firefighters and fire victims (the benefit concerts were co-sponsored by The Times), and he filled the neighboring restaurants and bars with whooping, cowboy-hatted celebrants either winding down from or gearing up for the shows.

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Brooks never does anything in a small way, and this endurance test -- five concerts in two days is an unprecedented schedule for a modern arena-rock performer -- is the kind of thing that challenges his competitive spirit and fills his need for attention, two of his defining traits.

His last tour ended a decade ago, and he formally retired in 2001 to be a family man. But he clearly savored this return, his only planned performances following a series of nine shows in Kansas City, Mo., in November.

Brooks is the biggest-selling solo artist in the U.S., and the rare blend of energy and intimacy he brought to the concert stage made him one of pop music’s most successful and appealing attractions in the 1990s.

So his fans’ desire for that experience matched Brooks’ hunger to deliver it, giving the weekend’s shows the charged intensity of a lovers’ reunion that both know will be brief.

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What would it be like to sit -- sorry, to stand -- through all five? Would the 45-year-old Brooks have the stamina to scamper and sing for 10 hours? Would he and his band need time to get the feel back?

More important, would the magician’s secrets become clear and spoil the magic?

Well, not to worry. Although the concerts drew from the same pool of material with just a few variations, each had its own personality. None of them opened or closed with the same songs, and Brooks rarely repeated a riff. At Saturday’s first show, he did a lot of playful pouting about the attention his band members were getting, but there wasn’t a trace of it at the following concert. On each audience sing-along of “Unanswered Prayers,” he added his own vocal at different points, always zoned in on how it was unfolding.

Which show was the best? The vote here is for the second, Friday’s 10 p.m. concert. The finale? A slight letdown. Here’s the breakdown.

Show No. 1, Friday at 6 p.m.: The Icebreaker and the Fundraiser. Brooks had to shape his set for the hourlong live telecast on CBS, with its commercial breaks and a taped tribute to San Diego firefighter Brooke Linman, who was critically burned during last year’s Harris fire. Here Brooks traded pacing for pragmatism, since the telecast raised additional money from viewers.

Linman, who was among a group of firefighters in the front row, got more than she expected near the end of the show. Brooks was struggling to get his guitar in tune and was about to discard the instrument when he looked her way and said, “Miss Brooke, would you like this guitar by any chance?”

He passed it to her amid cheers from the crowd.

But here’s the question: When is the last time you saw an out-of-tune guitar at an arena concert? After only a decade away, Brooks seems like something from another era, grounded in a rural identity that’s all but vanished from country music.

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It’s there in his devotion to cowboy songs, and the way fiddler Jimmy Mattingly regularly connects things to honky-tonks and hoedowns, and it’s something that tends to be forgotten amid Brooks’ reputation as country music’s great modernizer.

Show No. 2. Friday at 10 p.m.: The After-Hours Blowout. Brooks told his late-show audience that while he appreciated CBS’ participation, the telecast had made them “stop-start-stop-start.”

His eyes gleaming mischievously, he added, “We’ve got some making up to do,” and he kicked into one of the most dynamic sets he’s ever played in Southern California, with his nine-member band firing up such rockers as “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)” and squeezing tears from “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and other ballads.

Following her duet with Brooks on “In Another’s Eyes,” Yearwood got to stay for a second song, her own “Walkaway Joe,” with Brooks playing acoustic and singing the Don Henley part. Lewis got a second song too.

Brooks’ tastes are right down the middle, as he laid out in his extended solo encore salute to his influences -- James Taylor, Jim Croce, Billy Joel, Cat Stevens.

With Brooks, nothing can be ordinary. At the end, he seemed near tears as he pledged to his fans, “I’ll never forget this night.”

Show No. 3, Saturday at 1 p.m.: The Lunch Crowd. Brooks and company could have used some more coffee. There was a set list snafu, a bit of flubbed fretting during “Unanswered Prayers,” and one of the band members missed the final bow.

But this is Garth Brooks, remember, and it would take more than that to knock him off course. The set list confusion was the occasion for a humorous band huddle, and he gave this concert his most conversational tone, moving the “influences” segment from the encore into the set and using a recurring “Garth 101" signifier to give advice to songwriters.

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“Garth 101: Never say if it’s a true story or not,” he instructed, then played “That Summer,” his song about a lad’s introduction to passion by an older woman.

He also gave an acoustic guitar to a fan whose sign had asked for a mere pick.

There’s something called “reading the room,” and Brooks does it with almost scary concentration. Just before playing his perennial set-closer, the reflective “The Dance,” he looked out and said, “That couple dancing 10 rows in, I see you. . . . That couple that’s dancing between Sections 309 and 310 in the balcony, I see it all.”

Show No. 4, Saturday at 5 p.m.: All Warmed up but Not Worn Out. Close to Friday’s late show for pace and energy. Time to note that for someone credited with bringing arena-rock showmanship to country music, Brooks was all about storytelling. Other than the confetti guns shot by firefighters, there were no special effects, and the focus throughout was on Brooks’ dry, plain-spoken voice and his clear, compelling tales.

At the end of the show, Brooks returned for a second encore and told the crowd that a young woman had just greeted him backstage. The concession-stand employee had asked him what it was like to be in front of all those people, so of course he brought her out, and let her bask at his side in the cheers. “You’ll love this,” he told her as he ordered the audience to take photos of them, and in the flashing of the cameras, he gave her his hat.

Show No. 5, Saturday, 9 p.m.: The Finale. Were they hitting the wall? The set was similar to its predecessor, but maybe expectations were higher for a show that would be Brooks’ last for the foreseeable future.

He said they’d play for a long time, but it was a two-hour show like the others, and while his final exit was clearly emotional, the concert lacked the single special moment you expect from someone with Brooks’ grand sense of occasion.

Earlier in the weekend, Brooks all but promised he’d tour again, when his daughters are on their own. That’s nice to know, because these shows were an eye-opening reassertion that Brooks can summon a spirit of joy that’s matched by only a handful of performers in pop music.

He’s a force of nature, no question, and in retrospect, the weekend at Staples might be seen as a little temblor, a teasing reminder that the big one is still coming.

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richard.cromelin@latimes.com


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