Garth Brooks had just finished singing his smash hit “The Dance,” but his band continued to play.
The country superstar had sung for about 80 minutes straight, with very little chit-chat in between. His hot pink, buttoned-up shirt was completely soaked through with sweat, and after performing one of his signature songs, it was a good time to make a stage exit.
But his band was still playing. And as the music carried on softly in the background, Brooks appeared to go off the cuff.
“We left a lot of people in line — this was the fastest sellout we’ve ever had, or Ticketmaster’s ever had,” the country superstar told his crowd of over 50,000 at Salt Lake’s Rice-Eccles Stadium. “And as much as I love that and as much as I’m thankful for that, all I can think about are those people who waited as long as you and they didn’t get a ticket. So I’m going to do something stupid right now.”
And then Brooks dropped a bombshell. Acknowledging that he hadn’t yet talked to the stadium or worked through the logistics, he announced that he and his band — musicians who have been by his side since the mid-1990s — would return to Rice-Eccles Stadium. But it wasn’t a vague statement, an empty promise couched with phrases like “probably” or “some day.”
His voice intensifying, Brooks proclaimed: “This tour ends in the summer of ’22. Before this stadium tour ends, I would like to come back here!”
The crowd, which even in the 90-plus degree heat never waned in energy, drowned out the last few seconds of Brooks’ declaration. But the singer had made his point.
The moment illustrated something that defines Brooks as an artist: He really likes to perform. But beyond that, he really likes to perform for his fans.
Sure, you could make the argument that returning to Salt Lake City is a money grab — Saturday night’s show sold more than 50,000 tickets in less than 30 minutes, according to a news release sent to the Deseret News. But when it comes to his stadium tours, Brooks has a luck-of-the-draw ticket approach — all tickets for his Salt Lake show were $95 regardless of whether the seat was right against the stage or up in the nosebleeds.
And the night before his sold-out show at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Brooks performed for a substantially smaller crowd — close to 900 people — at The Westerner, a venue that’s about a 20-minute drive from the stadium. The only way in was to win tickets through the local country radio station KSOP.
Brooks seems to possess a sincerity when it comes to giving his fans a moment they won’t forget — and giving his fans as much of a chance as possible to experience that moment.
Saturday night’s show was supposed to start at 7 p.m. A combination of the heat — at one point, my phone said it was 99 degrees — and the deadlocked traffic downtown near the stadium led that concert to start at 9 p.m.
On Twitter, some fans who were stuck in traffic posted about the delay in getting to the stadium. Brooks assuaged any worries on his own Twitter feed: “Heard about the traffic!” he posted. “It’s not a show without U! We’ll wait!!!”
I’m sure there were fans who were upset about the start-time delay. But as a whole, it was a forgiving crowd. The stadium erupted the minute Brooks finally emerged from underneath the stage, looking like the cover of “Atlas Shrugged” as he pretended to carry the weight of the rising drum set with his back until it reached ground level.
And then he hit the ground running.
It should be noted that Brooks released an album during the pandemic. While most artists tend to promote their new music on tour, Brooks only performed one song from his new album “Fun,” which peaked at No. 42 on Billboard’s Top 200. He wasted no time getting to the hits he knows his fans have come to hear.
After performing “Rodeo” — his second song of the night — Brooks flicked a layer of sweat off his forehead. He took a minute to enjoy the rapid applause after “Two Pina Coladas.” And when he slowed things down with his ballad “The River,” he smiled as just about everyone in the stadium turned on their cellphone lights and swayed.
That moment brought me back to last summer, when virtually all concert halls and venues were still closed. Brooks, ever a musician for the people, found creative ways to keep playing music for his fans during this time — everything from Facebook livestreams with his wife, country star Trisha Yearwood, to filming a special concert that aired at 300 drive-in theaters across North America.
I went to that drive-in show, which took place a little more than a year ago, and sang along to every word. As fun as it was, though, I still remember the mild disappointment I felt. The show was prerecorded, and Brooks couldn’t actually see or interact with the crowd — he didn’t really know if his fans had followed his request to turn on their cellphone lights during “The River.”
He couldn’t hear his fans shout out requests, or feed off of their energy. With vehicles spaced out by roughly 10 feet, there was a palpable disconnect, and I left the drive-in hoping that it wouldn’t become the “new normal” for big entertainment.
The good news is that Brooks apparently didn’t want it to be the “new normal,” either, because although vastly different, both the drive-in show from last summer and his stadium concert in Utah reinforced the same thing: Live music cannot be replaced.
Standing on the large stage at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Brooks could actually hear the cheers of the crowd, and there were multiple times during the night when he stood back in amazement to take in all of the applause.
He sprinted from one part of the stage to another, doing his best to play to every part of the stadium. At one point during “Unanswered Prayers,” he became overwhelmed by the sound of an entire stadium singing along. He stopped singing and just let his fans’ voices wash over him.
“How sweet is that?” he said with a wide smile, strumming his guitar and letting the audience finish the song without him.
In a stadium filled with 50,000-plus people, Brooks managed to form a stronger connection with his audience than he did at the drive-in show that allowed people to see him up close from the comfort of their cars.
But, even more impressive is the fact that in a stadium filled with 50,000-plus people, Brooks also managed to create one-of-a-kind moments for individual fans.
After singing “The Dance” and announcing to an ecstatic crowd that he would return to Utah within a year, Brooks left the stage.
He had played most of his hits, and by all standards, had put on a full show.
But he wasn’t done yet.
After a few minutes, Brooks returned to the stage, sans band, to do something he calls “housekeeping.” He looked out at the many posters in the crowd and did his best to respond to them. One sign in particular caught his eye: “You’re the reason I play the guitar!”
Brooks grabbed the sign, held it up on stage for the entire stadium to see, and said: “This is true for me, too.”
Most of the signs were song requests, and many of them were numbers Brooks doesn’t typically perform in concert. He performed them one by one: “In Lonesome Dove,” “Ireland,” “She’s Every Woman,” and even Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
“Are you sure? That’s not even my song,” Brooks said with a laugh.
He sang for a couple getting married next month. He sang for a man hoping to dedicate a love song to his significant other. He sang for two young boys who had sported some of the classic country outfits from his early 1990s album covers.
In that moment, Brooks encapsulated what makes live music so special. It’s about creating a bond with an audience, sending people home happier than they were when they arrived, and giving them a night they’re not bound to forget anytime soon.
For Brooks, maybe this part of the show was especially important after a year-and-a-half hiatus from performing live due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe he just wanted to make up for lost time with his fans. But the more plausible answer is much more straightforward: He’s just always been this way.