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August 27, 2014

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Garth Brooks brings a new showbiz paradigm to Las Vegas

Country superstar opens five-year, one-man stand at Wynn Las Vegas

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Henry Diltz

Garth Brooks performs at Encore Theater in the Wynn on Dec. 12, 2009.

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Garth Brooks performs at Encore Theater in the Wynn on Dec. 12, 2009.

Garth Brooks Press Conference

Garth Brooks speaks during a press conference on the debut night of his new show in Encore Theater at the Wynn on Dec. 11, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Game-changer

The triumphant arrival of Garth Brooks may be the first glimpse of the next Las Vegas and a new showbiz paradigm: the anti-spectacle. After a decade of ever-more-elaborate (and impersonal) Cirque-dominated, can-you-top-this? extravaganzas — epitomized by Celine Dion and then Bette Midler — Brooks and Steve Wynn are keeping it simple. They're even keeping a low overhead (well, except for that jet). As a headliner, Brooks is unplugged and unpretentious, just a singer and his songs, up close and personal.

Art of artlessness

No costumes (the audience is more dressed-up than the star) means no costume changes, no running around the stage. Although production values are high, with luxe lighting, a wireless headset and a bit of reverb in the pin-drop audio, there are no special effects, no band, no dancers, no pyrotechnics. Dressed down in a hoodie, jeans, baseball cap and work boots, Brooks, 47, could be a husky Anyguy — you'd never recognize him if you bumped into him in the casino. Joking that Friday's first show was "rougher than a cob," Brooks made a show of tuning his guitar (it may be a bit of shtick), and for a while his headset mike popped annoyingly with every breath. But his crowd doesn't care if he spaces on a lyric or biffs a guitar lick — in fact, they eat it up. Brooks is quick with self-effacing jokes, but make no mistake, he knows what he's doing and is in utter control of the stage and his aw-shucks image.

Country encapsulated

Brooks' repertoire — and his voice — is a skilled, distilled summation of country music's past hybridized with '70s singer-songwriter pop. At Friday's press conference, Brooks asked reviewers to preserve the surprise of his set list, which seems apt to change. I will abide, but I can say his influences and inspirations are big on Boomer icons, warming up with Merle Haggard, George Jones and "my king" George Strait, nodding to Bob Seger, and reserving special love for his man-crushes, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Billy Joel. (He found it necessary to inform the audience, "I'm not gay, but…") His fans clearly share his sentimental journey: Several times Brooks stopped singing entirely, for instance, leaving the last choruses of "Piano Man" to the audience, who joyously took over.

Killing us softly

What the multiplatinum Brooks is doing for an estimated $125 a ticket is the same thing he was doing as a green unknown, playing covers and singing for tips at Wild Willie's as an Oklahoma college student. While Brooks' audience is paying rapt attention to his high-end busking, you can bet that somewhere else in town, some singer is playing his or her guitar at a bar — singing Garth Brooks covers, most likely — while paying customers obliviously carry on drinking, talking, singing and playing beer pong. Who knows where or when the next Garth Brooks will be incarnated? He may already walk among us.

Any requests?

After a few songs and a Field of Dreams reference, Garth brings up the house lights and takes questions — and requests! This is where Brooks really breaks from the pack, the rare superstar ready, willing and able to work on his feet. And these apparently spontaneous, unexpected requests included some early and obscure Brooksiana, providing some of the most polished and powerful moments of the show. He got around to "Friends in Low Places," of course ("I'm gonna make you wait), and when he did — teasing out the opening chords, standing close to the crowd with the toes of his work boots hanging over the lip of the stage — it seemed joyously unfollowable. Until Brooks followed it, with "The Dance," which had people near me singing along through tears.

Just like us

The early buzz about Brooks' engagement was about thwarting scalpers and Wynn giving Brooks a private to jet to commute between shows and be a soccer dad for his three teenage daughters (one of whom is named after James Taylor). The audience loves this — humble superstar as daily commuter. Stars: they're just like us. (The only hint of superstar regalism was Brooks' odd habit of referring to himself with the royal "we.") The crowd went wild when Trisha Yearwood, Brooks' wife of four years and every bit the big-time country star he is, walked on and instigated some Sonny-&-Cher-style banter. "Wardrobe change," Yearwood cracked, when Brooks turned his cap front to back. "Nice ring!" someone shouted. "Looks real, doesn't it?" Yearwood said. "That ring," Brooks shot back, "is the reason we had to take this gig." The pair's tender harmonizing on "Walk Away Joe" was one of several money's-worth moments in the 90-minute set. Is it too much to hope that Brooks and Yearwood will have his-and-hers deals at Wynn?

Close to you

The main takeaway: The fans want to be in the room with the object of their affection or adoration. They want to feel as if the star might see them or hear them. This isn't possible in, say, the cavernous Colosseum, where the performers' main objective is to project persona, hit their marks and cues in an assembly line show that's virtually the same night after night. Each concert of Brooks' five-year engagement has the potential to feel like a one-of-a-kind occurrence, which makes the audience feel special. This is likely what the next Vegas is going to be about.

Is that an iPhone in your hand?

Hypervigilant ushers rushed up and down the aisles, aiming their blue penlights at anyone who seemed to be texting or Twittering or recording forbidden video or audio from their seats. The ushers' hovering omnipresence was more annoying than the lights from the tiny screens, but they were just doing their jobs, on a mission from Headquarters. "Mr. Wynn told us that he doesn't want to see this show on YouTube," one middle-aged usher told me after the show. As the audience filed out, she leaned against a wall, catching her breath after 90 minutes of search-and-destroy stair sprints.

The house wins again

Wynn deserves to be hailed once more for his genius in booking this act at this time. Somehow he alone found a retired superstar with international reach, but a particular appeal to American heartland devotees, who has been off the stage long enough (since 2001) to build up an appetite, who has the charm and chops to turn in a show that feels like an extraordinary privilege and is worthy of repeat visits.

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