"I'm nervous as hell," Garth Brooks announced during a press conference Friday afternoon at Yankee Stadium in New York City. The country music legend was preparing to play the first of two shows at the venue. "If I don't land on my hat at some point during the night," he added, "I'll be happy."
Hours later, dripping with rain and sweat onstage, Brooks brought up his anxiety again. "I always come into this town scared that I can't be myself," he told the crowd, "and I realize that's the only thing you want me to be." It's a classic Garth-ism, an earnest plea for solidarity shrouded in self-deprecation.
It makes sense that unity is a central piece of this singer's platform: by at least one measure, he's the leader of the music consumer's democracy, with more albums sold than any other act during the Nielsen Soundscan era. Brooks exists in an unusual space, more traditional than country's current mainstream, even though his relentless stylistic jumps throughout the Nineties helped create the omnivorous sound of the genre today. Listening now, his discography sounds shockingly retro – riddled with fiddles and pedal steel, comfortable with honkytonk and western swing, and stocked with enough songs about rodeos to satiate an army of cowboys. All these tropes are hard to find on contemporary country radio.
But Brooks also brought an egalitarian breadth to his music, pulling disparate genres into country's orbit with impunity years before many of his peers. In the early Nineties, when traditionalists ruled Nashville, Brooks embraced Billy Joel and Aerosmith, gospel soul ("We Shall Be Free"), Celtic rock ("Ireland") and even Disney ("It's Midnight Cindarella"). Live recordings captured in 1986 find him covering Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Seger, next to genre stalwarts like David Allan Coe. These explorations culminated in 1999, when Brooks adopted the persona of an alter-ego, Chris Gaines, and released an album containing a snippet of rap ("Right Now") next to pop-grunge ("Unsigned Letter") and Quiet Storm R&B ("Lost in You").
The Chris Gaines project sold fewer copies than any other album Brooks put out during the Nineties, but no one would bat an eye if it came out of Nashville today. Years later, country has finally caught up to Brooks. When he released Man Against Machine in 2014 – his first studio LP since 2001 – he was no longer in his genre's sonic vanguard.
His show at Yankee Stadium reflected his new position: he dabbled in extremes – rave-ups ("Ain't Going Down (Til The Sun Comes Up)" and rowdy fiddle workouts ("Callin' Baton Rouge") – but always returned to the middle: sure-footed power ballads, predictable and entirely comforting.
Brooks works with the gusto of a motivational speaker – his trademark headset microphone leaves both hands free to pump and gesticulate, and in his favorite stance, his arms are spread wide, allowing him to exude joy and bask in it. He cheers and exhorts and sings until he's out of breath, at which point he often celebrates by letting off a jubilant yell – part whoop, part growl – of irrepressibility. His seven-piece band follows his lead with incessant smiles and foot-stomping zeal. Fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly joined his boss in a run around the stage's outer ring – leading the crowd through the wave – that left both panting into their mics.
If there was a consistent theme during the night other than the expanse and longevity of Brooks' catalog, it was love. The singer brought up the recent shooting in Dallas, grouped it with the tragic killings that took place in Orlando and Paris, and posited love as "our only hope." When the crowd started a "U-S-A" chant, he gently pushed it in a more inclusive direction: "People here in the U.S.A. and all over the world love one another." Later he noted, "Let's recognize our differences and realize they are our strengths."
His three superb backing singers, each voice distinct in harmony, represent the musical embodiment of Brooks' secular preaching. They beamed rays of uplift into one song after another – surging through "People Loving People," bringing the fire and brimstone to "Thunder Rolls" and "How Do I Live Without You," which came during a too-short but still hard-hitting mid-set appearance by the singer Trisha Yearwood (who also happens to be Brooks' wife). Yearwood romped through a few hits, and her vim seemed to energize Brooks, who returned with a searing rendition of "Shameless" (originally by Billy Joel). Here again the backup singers proved invaluable, adding an incendiary echo to Brook's declaration of all-consuming infatuation.
Brooks made it through the evening without landing on his hat, and as the night came to a close with a series of encores, he confidently ditched his band to play hits alone on acoustic guitar. He marveled at how far he had come – "I can't believe this thing started in a little 25-person saloon in Oklahoma" – and honored his New York audience yet again by covering Joel's "Piano Man." He added one more plaudit for good measure: "Thanks for treating me like one of you!"