Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 | 10:01 p.m.
It always started with a bare stage, a bar stool, two bottles of water and a guitar. It ended after three years of sellout concerts with country king Garth Brooks saying, “I am the boss after 184 shows.” He sang “Friends in Low Places” for the final time of the run, threw his black baseball cap in the air and lay the guitar flat on the floor.
It was a poignant -- and fitting -- final moment of the closing show as he walked offstage arm-in-arm hugging and kissing his wife Trisha Yearwood. In between, as has been the case of every solo show he’s played at Encore Theater in the Wynn, was two hours of extraordinary storytelling, memorable songs, music and laughter. No theatrics. No stunts or special effects. No big backing orchestra or sexy singers and dancers. No overpowering psychedelic sets.
Just plain and simple down-home country. All so intimate you honestly believe that you were in his living room at home watching him plot a new tune. Purity at its finest, and every time the reaction has been a string of standing ovations.
This past Saturday’s closer was different. Still phenomenal and brilliant, but the joy was mixed with sadness. Anticipation tinged with gloom that Garth was pulling up stakes. But it was even better than imagined. This is no ordinary feat; it is the mark of a superstar. To walk on a naked stage without a script and hold 1,500 people spellbound as you play your favorite music takes courage.
Garth admitted that he had no idea from show to show what he would do or sing until he walked out into the spotlight. To pull that off for 184 shows without criticism or disappointment of any kind is herculean; to succeed with praise and admiration is beyond remarkable.
Garth told me: “People always ask what we are going to do now. All I can tell you is we still have a junior in high school, and we have two in college now. We still have another couple years, so we are going to finish our job as parents. And then after, we get the youngest [Allie] off to college, we will see if there is a place for us, maybe, back in the industry. When we become empty nesters, well, my youngest graduates in May of 2014. So, we become empty nesters right around then, and who knows.
“Our business, as you know, this business is very fickle, so there might not be a hole for us. But if there is, I would love to tour again for the first time ever without guilt from being away from either my spouse or my children. Now my children are off doing their own thing, and my spouse is with me. You know we’re together on tour, so I think that would be all the fun things.”
Garth loves the one-man show format, but I think he hankers for the big crowds of fans who have been waiting patiently for him since his self-imposed retirement in 2001. He’ll be back at the Wynn to record his one-man show as a TV special, with Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese possibly staging it. He may even take up hotel tycoon Steve Wynn on his offer to return any time he wants if he feels the urge to entertain at the hotel again. He’ll be home in Tulsa, Okla., for a while, and then in early 2014 start work for six months on the vision of a touring show that could go out that fall.
Playing to thousands in arenas and stadiums will be a far cry from the intimacy of the 1,500 who heard him in reverential silence Saturday night into Sunday morning at the final show. The beginning of his musical journey paid tribute to Merle Haggard and George Jones. He said that his life was so influenced by James Taylor that he named daughter Taylor after him. He referenced Simon and Garfunkel, described Elton John as the most musical genius and played “Thunder Rolls” to prove it. He confessed that he’d loved Trisha before they even met. He said that he still wants to be George Strait when he grows up.
The former bouncer from the Tumbleweed nightclub in Stillwater, Okla., went on to break records for bestselling albums and concerts and a month ago was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But as he’s the first to tell you, he remembers everything engrained in him by two remarkable parents.
“Dad ran everything, but mom was a pistol,” he explained. “She was tiny, just 80 pounds. She’d drive a mint green Chevy Chevelle and was just getting started at 75 mph in third gear! She’d take it up to 95 without seatbelts, and I’d be singing ‘American Pie’ out of the window. I was the last of six kids -- that will screw anybody up, but it’s humbling to know you will leave with the truth.”
Garth told his audience that the sound of Encore Theater was the finest of anywhere he’d played over the years, and his voice was pitch perfect whether or not he was strumming his guitar. “I’ve never played any place like it. It was built purely for sound. It can get so quiet in there, you can hear yourself think while you’re doing songs. Then with the audience, it can get so loud, you can’t hear yourself sing.
I congratulated Garth and Trisha after the show and reminded them that their seventh anniversary is just around the corner: Dec. 10. He summed up the experience: “You’ve seen it from the beginning. The show changed subtlely over the years just like I did. It worked out a lot better than I ever thought it would. Just me and the guitar and a ride in a wonderful spirit. Nobody was happier to be in that room than me.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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