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Kats Goes Cowboy: Garth Brooks remains the king of the rodeo

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Garth Brooks performs at Encore Theater in the Wynn on Dec. 12, 2009.
Photo: Henry Diltz

Garth Brooks tells a story of his mother driving a Chevy Chevelle, which in the late 1960s and early ’70s was no less than one of the fastest and baddest cars on the road.

Brooks' mother, Colleen, was a small woman, so she would adjust the seat so that she could reach the steering wheel. Or so it seemed. But Brooks says the real reason she moved the seat toward the dash was so she could force her foot down hard on the gas pedal.

She had a heavy foot, did Colleen Brooks, who died in 1999 of cancer. Brooks speaks of her with equal measures of love and amazement, moved still by her deceptive capacity for thrill seeking. He talks about driving on a stretch of road in his hometown of Yukon, Okla., which opened up suddenly to a freeway, and all you could see were telephone poles whizzing by on either side. Laid out, for miles ahead, was unimpeded asphalt.

“I remember looking over at the speedometer, as a little kid, and seeing the needle inching toward 80 miles an hour,” Brooks says during his Saturday night show at Encore Theater in the Wynn. “And Mom is dropping the gearshift from third gear to fourth.”

The story has nothing to do with country music, or rodeo, or ranching or any facet of cowboy culture that produces many of Brooks’ fans. But the yarn has everything to do with why Brooks can waddle onstage wearing work boots, construction jeans (with a set of keys hooked into a loop), a black, snap-button shirt and matching “GB” ball cap and still entertain an audience for nearly 2 hours.

The story about his mom’s driving is hilarious; Brooks ends it by saying his life was saved on innumerable occasions when his mom reached across the front seat with her right arm outstretched.

“This is why I am here today,” he says, sticking his own arm out to the side. Brooks adds that his father, Raymond, who passed this year, “was one of these ‘thrown-clear’ guys.” As in, “If I’m in an accident, I wanna be thrown clear!”

“Our cars never had seat belts,” Brooks continues. “Well, they actually did, but they were tucked under the seats with the empty beer cans.”

The audience roars. This crowd is dotted with cowboy hats, many fans likely taking in his show and the National Finals Rodeo. Out in the casino, a country outfit called the Stephanie Eason Band has overtaken the sports book, so the Wynn and Encore hotels are more countrified than usual.

At Brooks’ show, two hefty cowboys seated in the row in front of me repeatedly yell, “You go, big man!” and, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Right from the start, Brooks has attempted to lower expectations (an impossibility, really, given his highly praised one-man show). As his customary standing ovation ebbs, he says, “Boy, are you guys gonna be disappointed.” He says, “Lemme introduce my band,” and turns to nothing but a series of lights at the back of the stage and a wooden stool supporting a couple of bottles of water. Even the potted plants from Brooks’ opening shows have been removed. Too gaudy, I guess.

Brooks’ show is a little more focused than it was at the beginning. He tunes his guitar less, not using the “I’m-really-a-crummy-musician” claim while doing so. He doesn’t respond to every shout and wail from the audience; if so, he’d be onstage for 4 hours. He says he’s going to play uncommonly long in this, the second show of the night, but the 2-hour duration is the same as the first performance. We know, because this one has started nearly 30 minutes late.

Mostly, Brooks puts the audience in the Chevelle’s passenger seat, roaring through the decades.

He talks of his father’s love for two country music giants, Merle Haggard and George Jones, using his right arm to make a cross hair to reflect his father’s linear thinking: “There was Haggard,” he says, moving his hand vertically, “and there was Jones,” and he gestures horizontally. His dad rightfully lorded over the radio — another cross-cultural reference for anyone who fought his or her parents for control of the home’s audio entertainment — and what was usually played was Haggard or Jones. Problem was, the young Garth could not identify with the lyrics in the songs of those two. “I was hearing, ‘When they let me outta prison,’ when I was 2 years old!” Brooks laughs. “George Jones sang about love that had gone so wrong that you wanted to kill someone!”

He makes fun of the artists of the 1960s, who were too stoned (he implies, at least) to properly finish songs, putting up the nonsensical playouts of “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel and “Hey Jude” by The Beatles as regretful examples. It took Brooks years to decipher most of Don McLean’s “American Pie,” and he still seems thrown by the verse that starts, “Helter skelter in a summer swelter ...,” saying, “Wha-a?” But he loves Cat Stevens and many artists of the 1970s, including KISS and especially Bob Seger, who explained to a teenager the vital information that was being edited out in church. Such as, what a stripper looks like while dancing as you peer through a window on Main Street.

Brooks talks of meeting James Taylor before an episode of VH1’s Honors show, beginning the story by saying, “Now, I don’t think I’m gay, but ...” It’s man-crush time, and when Brooks talks of seeing tears drip onto his guitar as they rehearse “Sweet Baby James” in Brooks’ dressing room, you’re convinced there’s no exaggeration. He’s a hero who is happy to relate his own idolatry nature, speaking lovingly of such stars as Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs (who saved country music, by Brooks’ assessment, with 1983’s “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown”) and George Strait, who maddens Brooks by performing an entire concert nearly motionless while Brooks bounds over a veritable jungle gym of stage effects in his fully outfitted live shows.

Midway through, and not surprisingly, Trisha Yearwood is summoned for “In Another’s Eyes,” their two voices soaring and their noses nearly touching. Brooks jokes here, telling his wife, “Remember whose show this is.”

More chuckles. Brooks also relates, with great conviction, how challenging it was to perform for a dozen patrons at Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater, Okla. Singing over fighting, is how he describes it, which is the climate in which he developed his remarkable rangy repertoire. “I even did impressions,” he says, then dives into “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” singing the Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias parts as well as any full-time impressionist.

He saves “Friends in Low Places” for the end. I’d call it the encore, but Brooks saves time by just saying, “This is the encore,” and cutting into the song. By now I’m reminded of how Steve Wynn thought of offering Brooks a full-time gig at his hotel. It was during a private performance at Encore, and Wynn was seated next to Bette Midler, who turned to Wynn and said, “Have you signed him yet?!” Similar to Brooks,’ Midler’s show at The Colosseum was a great showcase for her devilish sense of humor. It’s what helps set Brooks apart, too, the capacity to have fun with you and make some fun of himself.

It’s the second time I’ve seen the Brooks, and both times, after the buzz of the performance subsides, skepticism creeps in. Did I just get duped, taken by a guy whose just farting around in what is little more than a rehearsal show, a practice session for when he finally returns to the road? But it is fully satisfying, uniquely entertaining. Call him the top gun or top cowboy, Brooks is in the driver’s seat now, the needle inching toward 80.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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