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Garth Brooks bypasses glitz and shows genius in Vegas

December 13, 2009 | 11:04 am

Every showroom owner in town here has to be kicking himself or herself after Garth Brooks' return to public performance over the weekend.

"You mean instead of pumping 12 gazillion dollars into a blowout production," they're surely asking today, "I could have packed them in to see a middle-aged guy in a hoodie sweatshirt, baggy jeans, work boots, a baseball cap" -- a promotional one at that -- "and one guitar?"

There's real genius at work on a couple of fronts in Brooks' new gig, not the least of which is how utterly anti-Vegas it is. It's got not an ounce of glitz, and that's the selling point: just Brooks -- the top-selling solo act in pop music history -- up close and very personal in the intimate 1,500-seat Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn's namesake hotel and casino.

On the business side, that also translates into pure profit -- after, of course, subtracting the 12 gazillion dollars Wynn undoubtedly is paying Brooks to spend 15 weekends a year at his place for the next five years, if all goes according to plan.

At Saturday's late show, the freshly unretired 47-year-old country superstar noted that he'd been in Memphis that day watching one of his daughters play soccer in a championship playoff game, after which he hopped aboard the private jet Wynn threw in to get him to his nighttime gig about 1,400 miles away.

"I can have it all," he told the audience through a broad Cheshire Cat grin. That means while continuing to attend to the demands of his three daughters' school and extracurricular activities, he still gets "to do what I think God put me down here to do. . . . Thank you, Steve, for letting me get to live this way."

Absent the spit, polish, shine and special effects that typify entertainment in Vegas, Brooks' show gives fans more than they could dream of, down to taking requests -- for his own and others' songs -- and openly exploring the genesis of those he did write, jumping with apparent spontaneity wherever the moment takes him.

That began Saturday with the traditional country foundation he traced to his father, acknowledged in snippets of songs by George Strait and Merle Haggard, to the '60s and '70s rock that's also strongly influenced his music: Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Jim Croce and, heaven help us, Dave ("Please Come To Boston") Loggins. So after a few verses and choruses of a song from each of various heroes, he segued into "The River," his 1991 song -- written with Victoria Shaw -- that exhibits more of the folk rockers' introspective philosophizing than the country icons' penchant for lyrics that snap.

It's a canny strategy that for better (mostly) or worse (sporadically) plays to Vegas crowds' appetite for hits, regardless of who they belong to, as well as Brooks' genuine desire to dissect his own music.

The danger is that as time goes on, the formula could devolve into karaoke night with Garth. But his obvious enthusiasm for live performance surmounted that hurdle Saturday, and presumably his schedule of only four shows per sporadic weekend will prevent him from falling into rote regurgitation.

At his October news conference announcing the deal with Wynn, Brooks said he might bring along a guest every now and then. On Saturday, not surprisingly, it was his wife, singer Trisha Yearwood.

They collaborated magnetically on their hit "In Another's Eyes," then he acted as though he had to cajole her into singing "Walkaway Joe," her hit duet with Don Henley. He grimaced at a couple of clams he hit while accompanying her on guitar; she shot him exasperated glances without dropping a beat in the song, the happy couple flirting with taking over as a modern day Sonny and Cher.

Do we really believe it was as much of a struggle as Brooks let on to honor requests for deep catalog material such as "Mr. Midnight"? Given the occasional flub, he was nothing if not sincere. When one woman shouted for "The Change," he briefly fiddled with his guitar before conceding, "No, I can't play it" -- then set the instrument aside and delivered a couple of verses a cappella.

Country music may now be dominated by younger, hunkier stars like Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban, but there's still nobody who works a crowd like Brooks. Now that he's back on the job, it's obvious he intends to let no fan walk out of one of his shows with anything remotely approaching a discouraging word.

"Guys," he said to the crowd about 90 minutes into a set that eventually ran well past the two-hour mark, "I have missed this."

Garth, the feeling's mutual.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Garth Brooks at the October news conference announcing his Las Vegas concerts. Credit: Eric Jamison / Associated Press.