Garth Brooks, orchestra conductor?
No, the country-pop superstar didn’t wear a tuxedo or wave a baton during his consistently celebratory Thursday night concert at Valley View Casino Center.
But he directed, and played, the entire audience with impressive skill and bravura. Indeed, at one point, it seemed as if he could have been conducting the San Diego Symphony, rather than opening a five-night stand here that is part of his first tour in nearly 14 years.
That point came eight songs and 32 minutes into his triumphant show, following his rollicking, roof-raising performance of “Ain’t Going Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up).”
In a move that may have been designed to help the sweat-drenched Brooks catch his breath, he pointed to fans on the left side of the sprawling venue and they cheered on cue. Then he pointed to the right, and a louder roar ensued. He repeated the process a number of times, as he may very well do when he performs again at the same venue tonight through Sunday during his record-setting, five-concert run at Valley View.
Of course, such “audience cheering competition” routines are business as usual at many arena and stadium concerts. But Brooks, who earned his MBA in 2010 from Oklahoma State University, doesn’t do much in a routine manner. He expertly cued fans on both sides of the venue, and then in the middle, creating cascading swells of shouts, screams and whistles that surged and receded with near-pinpoint-precision.
Not once did be bellow “I can’t hear you!” or some other standard line to pump up the volume of the crowd. At one point, though, he did gently scold fans for cheering before he gave them their wordless cue. “You have to wait until I give you the finger,” he quipped.
When this two-minute interlude of instrument-free conducting concluded, a grinning Brooks told the deafeningly enthusiastic audience: “I love being stupid!”
Make that, stupid and very savvy.
Brooks’ next song, the lilting ballad “Unanswered Prayers,” was performed as a solo acoustic number. Having the audience shout its collective head off just before he shifted from the exuberantly rocking “Ain’t Going Down” to the gentle “Prayers” made what could have been an abrupt shift in mood and tempo feel smooth, if not polished.
The Garth Brooks World Tour, with Trisha Yearwood
When: 7 p.m. tonight, 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Valley View Casino Center, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., Midway District
Tickets: $65.48 (plus $4 facility fee and $5.50 service charge)
Phone: (855) 411-4849
For the record, polished is not a quality to which Brooks, 53, aspires.
In response to a question from the Union-Tribune at his Thursday afternoon news conference here with his wife, fellow country singer Trisha Yearwood, Brooks pointed at her, and said: “Polished.” He then pointed at himself, and said: “Not polished.”
But what he may lack in refinement, Brooks makes up for many times over with his infectious enthusiasm, sheer joy and devotion to ensuring his fans leave his shows on a musical and emotional high. Like few other artists in any genre, he has the rare ability to connect with his concertgoers as a mass audience and as individuals, creating what feels like a one-on-one relationship.
That’s exactly what Brooks did Thursday, from the opening note of his first song (the thundering title track of his million-selling 2014 album, “Man Against Machine”), to his concluding series of encores, which included “Alabama Clay,” the Chris LeDoux-inspired “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” and “Standing Outside the Fire.”
Joking about his age, and the fact he last played here nearly 20 years ago, Brooks said: “I’m 105 years old, and the only way my ass is going to make it through these five (San Diego) shows is, you’re going to have to carry me through.”
The audience was more than happy to do their part. They loudly sang along on nearly every one of his nearly two-dozen selections, which included such favorites as “Rodeo,” “The River,” “Friends in Low Places,” “The Dance” and “The Thunder Rolls.”
He also included his memorable versions of Billy Joel’s “Shameless” and the Oak Ridge Boys’ Cajun-tinged “Callin’ Baton Rouge.”
Brooks, by his own admission, is not a great singer, technically speaking. But he’s a great entertainer, and he knows precisely how to convey and sustain emotions with his everyman voice and straightforward but enduring songs.
He was accompanied by a versatile, two-woman, eight-man band that rocked with vigor, played with nuanced sensitivity on the ballads and expertly performed country two-steps and waltzes.
The only time Brooks took a break was when he turned the stage over to his wife, Yearwood, for four selections, including her inspirational 1997 signature song “How Do I Live” and last year’s similarly uplifting “Prizefighter.”
The capacity for the concert was about 13,000, and Brooks was quick to note that the audience numbered about 5,000 fewer than that. But he was undaunted. “If, tomorrow night, the same 8,000 people show up,” he said, beaming broadly, “count me in!”