Garth Brooks delivers with first of six Joe Louis shows

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
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Garth Brooks performs for the crowd at Joe Louis Arena, Friday, February 20, 2015.

Garth Brooks became a global superstar not because he was the best singer or the best guitar player in the room, but because he was one of music's most passionate performers.

Friday night at Joe Louis Arena during the first of six shows at the Red Wings' home — and his first area concert since 1996 — Brooks proved that fire still burns within him. His 23-song, 140-minute performance was surprisingly personal for a show of its size and a performer of Brooks' scale, and he toned down the production bombast in favor of strengthening his bond with the audience.

He made those connections almost immediately. Brooks, backed by his seven-piece band and three backup singers, hit the stage and was slapping hands with the front row within seconds, pointing to people in the crowd and interacting with his fans. A lot of performers point to members of the crowd, but Brooks locks in on fans, makes eye contact with them and holds it, so when he points you know he's pointing at you. It's a rare skill but Brooks is a master of it, and he consistently made the crowd of more than 17,000 feel much smaller than it was.

The setlist was packed with his mega hits from the '90s, songs that were so big you didn't have to be anywhere near a Garth Brooks album or concert to know them word-for-word. Brooks has been gone from music for so long it's easy to forget what a titanic force he once was, but the songs he rolled out one-by-one — "Rodeo," "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," "Unanswered Prayers," "The Thunder Rolls," "Friends in Low Places" — were potent reminders of his seismic impact not just on country music, but on music as a whole.

Brooks has a new album in stores, November's "Man Against Machine," and while he opened with the title track he did anything but force the new material down people's throats. "Do you remember the old stuff?" he asked rhetorically, and almost apologetically, before stepping right into "Rodeo." He basked in the crowd singing the words back to him, and there were moments when you could hear him yell "yeah!" even without the help of his headset microphone. He was full of playful energy, buzzing around the stage like a hyperactive toddler, at one point climbing the dome-like structure that surrounded the drum kit. If Brooks doesn't love-love-love performing, he fakes it extremely well.

There were no pyrotechnics on stage, no wires that allowed Brooks to fly around the arena, and even the light show was toned down. About as tricky as things got was when Brooks took two water bottles and shook them on the crowd and himself, and late in the show when the drums and the staging elevated on risers. Rather than gussying things up with bells and whistles, Brooks made sure the songs were the star. And he's got the catalog to back him up.

There were only a few missteps. Brooks is a proudly uncool guy, but his schmaltzy "Man Against Machine" single "People Loving People" is a facepalm of a song, and sounds like something Aldous Snow would have sang for his comeback effort in "Get Him to the Greek." And Brooks tried to make himself sound like too much of a man of the people when he said he would proudly pay the fines levied against him for playing past Joe Louis Arena's 10 p.m. curfew — a curfew that doesn't actually exist.

But he delivered everywhere else, and there was even a bit of magic in the air when near the close of the show he caught a jersey thrown to him from the crowd — a Detroit Tigers jersey, with his last name and the number 77 on the back. He donned the jersey for a show-closing duet with his wife Trisha Yearwood, who did a short 20-minute set in the middle of the show. They sang a sweet, intimate version of Yearwood's 1992 single "Walkaway Joe," a decidedly low-key way to end the evening. Yet it was fitting: Brooks, who has never been a quiet guy, showed he doesn't need to yell to get his point across. He can make just as much of an impression with a whisper.

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