The obvious question: Why in hell was Garth Brooks playing South by Southwest, a festival that, at its core, is about giving necessary shine to emerging artists? Mega-stars like Brooks and Kanye West (2014’s big cheese, along with Jay Z) tend to suck up all the air in the room. Maybe Brooks draws media that otherwise wouldn’t be at his headlining showcase, and maybe those folks arrive early enough to catch Colter Wall, Cale Tyson or Sunny Sweeney. But it’s a thin argument.
That said, Garth Brook’s Saturday-night headlining slot at the outdoor Auditorium Shores stage – probably the biggest show ever held there – was a class act, like the rest of his Austin tour of duty. At his Friday keynote talk, along with promoting his new multi-platform Amazon mega-deal, he stumped for songwriters’ rights and complained about the lack of women artists in country radio programming. Speaking to a Billboard journalist, he criticized Donald Trump’s proposed defunding of the NEA, vowing to fight it. And he delivered a surprise solo acoustic set at the Broken Spoke, one of the city’s most venerable venues – a creaky low-ceiling throwback dancehall serving chicken-fried steak and pitchers of Lone Star to two-stepping, Texas swing-loving regulars. The dancers and Billy Mata’s band took a break when Brooks came on, running through compressed versions of classics like an earnest support act: Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Joe Nichols’ “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” and a bunch of his own hits.
Saturday’s show was free, with advance tickets ostensibly limited to Austin residents, and the downtown park setting allowed the ticketless to enjoy the music too (though blackout fencing cruelly blocked the stage from view). Following Sunny Sweeney’s sassy honky-tonk opening set and an array of jumbotron ads connected to the previous evening’s All Latinos Resist concert with Residente, the screen image cut to a golden lower-case “g,” the blingy icon of country’s biggest brand, and Brooks took the stage with his top-shelf 11-piece band. Many of the players have been with him for decades, including singer Vicki Hampton and master steel player Bruce Bouton. The latter played on Brooks’ single “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and the pair lit it up, Brooks jumping up and down at one point like a kid in a bouncy castle. He nodded to state boosters with the Texas swing of “Longneck Bottle,” and to the crossover crowd that helped make him a gazillionaire with a condensed version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” which triggered one of the night’s most spirited sing-alongs.
Of course, Brooks is a way bigger star than Joel – he’s the top-selling solo artist in the world, Michael Jackson included, according to the RIAA, with upwards of 136 million albums sold, a figure dwarfed only by the Beatles. And at 55, after a decade-plus “retirement” to raise his children, Brooks is still a spry entertainer. In a white cowboy hat, jeans and a black T-shirt (branded with the logo of bandmate Karyn Rochelle’s group, the Mumblers), he stormed the stage like a wound-up conscript on furlough, hell-bent on savoring every second of the party, grinning beatifically, raising his arms like a good ol’ boy version of Charlton Heston’s Moses, crowing about his love of Texas, and working up the crowd with corny who-can-whoop-louder? routines.
But the concert would have been impressive even if he did nothing but stand there and play his signatures, songs that clearly soundtracked the lives of many there, probably beginning in utero for some. During the remarkably tuneful sing-alongs on “The River” and “The Dance” – both masterpieces of sentimental songcraft – the crowd became the mighty choir of a pop-country mega-church. On “Rodeo,” “Friends in Low Places,” “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” “The Thunder Rolls” “Two Piña Coladas” and other songs, the roots of almost every modern Nashville flavor were plain: bro-country, punchline country, Eric Church’s redneck soul, Kenny Chesney’s post-“Margaritaville” beachcomber steez.
Folks sang along with those, too, lustily. And it was obvious that in a town where many locals seem to welcome SXSW’s freaky street-closing bacchanal like a zika outbreak, playing a free concert in the downtown park was probably the coolest thing a guy like Garth Brooks could possibly do. For a superstar who spent the weekend preaching togetherness, he put his money where his mouth is.