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Review: Tears from Garth Brooks as he takes to the stage for long-awaited Croke Park gig

How did the much-anticipated gig go? We were there – here’s our verdict.

IT’S RARE THAT a musician cries on stage during a stadium gig – but if you’re Garth Brooks, you cry not once, but five times. Yes, five times.

The tears were perhaps not wholly unexpected, given the long journey to get to tonight’s event (though The Journal did think ‘again?!’ on the fifth round). They weren’t fake, either. They were as real as Garth himself – a man who eschews ego and instead wears earnestness like an old, comfy leather coat. 

But the thousands of us in Croke Park for the long-awaited gig – the first of five, but you knew that already – could understand why the country superstar was so emotional. He really, really wanted this string of gigs to happen. He’d tried before, but he got rejection. Now he was back.

There’s an unease amongst the Irish with earnestness; we prefer cynicism. We don’t like thinking too highly of ourselves. We don’t really like others thinking too highly of us either, especially if they – shudder! – tell us to our face. And yet here tonight was one Garth Brooks, an American of Irish heritage telling us multiple times that he loves us. It was enough to make us queasy, in normal times. And yet.

And yet, it was nice to hear Brooks say those words. His wholesome joy at his return tapped into a greater collective joy at being in a stadium full of people who really wanted to be there too, after over two years of us not really being allowed to be anywhere. Why not be positive for a while? Why not soak up all the love? It’s what Brooks himself would do, after all. 

From the get-go, Brooks understood too that the crowd wanted the good stuff: the hits. And we got them. 

But let’s rewind to the very beginning. Brooks’ stage set-up was a simple one, themed around the letter g, in lower case. The semi-circle stage was covered with a half-shell of wire and steel. Out of the stage protruded a long walkway, so Brooks could get pretty far into the crowd, where he made love-heart gestures to fans, laughed at people’s signs and collected mementoes during the gig. 

His arrival? He appeared after a five-minute countdown, an Irish flag announcing his entrance (after a disembodied voice came over the loudspeaker first saying: Alexa, play Garth Brooks, in a nod to Brooks’ deal with Amazon, the only place where you can stream his records. Canny). 

A puff of smoke from the centre of the stage, and out of the centre rose Garth Brooks himself, arms raised. He looked smart in a black stetson, blue jeans, black shirt, and black belt with a huge silver buckle. 

All Day Long was a high-energy, honky tonk opener, with the on-point opening line of “Somebody’s gotta start the weekend”, like Brooks was setting out his intention to elevate fans’ days off this week. Next we got Rodeo, The Beaches of Cheyenne, and the fun Two Pina Coladas to help kick off the first part of the set. 

From there, he moved neatly through his back catalogue, stopping off at the hits like a visitor to Nashville popping into the best bars. 

IMG_4604 TheJournal.ie / Aoife Barry TheJournal.ie / Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry

It was when he played those beloved hits that things really took off, and each time Brooks brought out the big guns, the crowd delivered in return. There was singing, there was dancing, there were arms around friends and lovers, there were hands in the air. Stetsons bobbed in the crowd wherever you looked: pink, black, brown. There was an Irish flag with “Welcome Home Garth” painted on it. There were shouts of “olé!”. At least one person was wearing chaps.

Multiple times, Brooks reminded us of how glad he was to finally be here. “All we gotta do is get through the stadium tour and then we can get to Ireland,” he told us he once said to himself. Some of his lyrics started taking on an even more poignant feeling in that context, like the line “I’ll never reach my destination if I never try”, from 1991′s The River. 

Brooks told us about his worries, too – about how he’d feared that the gigs weren’t what he wanted them to be, how we had no idea how many miles he’d travel just to hear us sing (us? aw shucks!). But his fears weren’t played out: “This is as good as I want it to be,” he triumphed. And it wasn’t himself he was talking about – it was the crowd. He genuinely feeds off the crowd’s love, and it’s that which makes it hard to be cynical about how much he wanted to return here. 

He brought a surprise too on the night – in the shape of his wife, country singer Trisha Yearwood, who joined him for a cover of Shallow (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s duet from A Star Is Born), and who then sang her own song She’s In Love With The Boy – her glittery outfit shining like a beacon on the stage – before sharing a kiss with her husband. 

Of the hits, Friends in Low Places was predictably a highlight, the crowd really getting into it as green, white and orange streamers rained down from on high. Another highlight was Standing Outside The Fire, which led Brooks to tell the audience: “You guys fucking rock” (stop, we’re blushing!).

We got The Dance (Brooks cried), Shameless (which really showcased Brooks’ gift for crooning), The Thunder Rolls, Papa Loved Mama.

Other covers, besides Shallow, included Billy Joel’s 1973 classic Piano Man, with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, and Bob Dylan’s 1997 tearjerker To Make You Feel My Love. Brooks took some time as well to play That Ol’ Wind, from 1995′s Fresh Horses, after spotting it on a fan’s sign, even though he acknowledged it had been years since he sang it. He followed that with the heart-wrenching What She’s Doing Now (she’s tearing him apart, that’s what – sob).

After two encores, the set ended with an acoustic version of American Pie. It was just after 10pm, earlier than many thought he would finish – word was his curfew was 10.30pm. That Brooks could have gone on for another 30 minutes and kept a happy crowd was a sign of how entertaining his live shows are.

There was nothing bombastic about the setup, but everything from the lighting to the staging tonight felt measured, down-to-earth. The band themselves, most of whom have played with Brooks for years, looked like good pals just happy to have a jam. No airs and graces. 

If you’re a Garth Brooks fan, you’ll have got what you wanted tonight: a musician who really, truly wanted to be there. An appreciative, giving performer. A man not afraid to wear his country heart on his rolled-up denim sleeve.

You also got a night of unabashed positivity and emotion at a time of, well, grimness. Everywhere you look these days, it feels like there’s something bad happening. Tonight was a rare moment to sink into the pure goodness of live music, shepherded by a man who just wants us to feel the love. And ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that.

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