It finally happened. Garth Brooks performed the first-ever concert in Notre Dame Stadium. Two American powerhouses came together to put on a show they each hoped would be a show for the ages. GB. ND. It doesn’t get much bigger than this. Despite a late start and inclement weather, Brooks showed why he was the best choice to open up Notre Dame Stadium as a concert venue.
For most other artists, performing in a downpour an hour after the scheduled start time would doom a show from the beginning. For Brooks, the delay wasn’t even an obstacle. In fact, the only thing that got in the way of the concert was Brooks himself.
Brooks wasn’t the only star on stage, though. Adding to the spectacle of the show was the physical stage on which Brooks and his impressive band played. The stage was placed near the 40-yard line on the south side in the round of the stadium. In the middle of the stage was a rectangle where the band was set up, and shooting out from different points of this rectangle were five walkways, creating the shape of a star, where Brooks and his fellow bandmates could place themselves inches from the lively crowd. A truly impressive stage fit for a truly impressive entertainer.
Opening up with new single “All Day Long” and old favorites “That Summer” and “Two Of A Kind, Workin’ On A Full House,” Brooks seemed to set a precedent for the show to follow: well-played, no-frills country music delivered to a rapt audience. A sentiment punctuated by Brooks telling the crowd, “We came out here to play music, not to talk.” A promise he held true to for most of the night.
This momentum was squandered, however, when Brooks asked the audience to repeat the chorus of “Two Piña Coladas” after the song had ended. The concert was being filmed for a CBS Christmas special, and the special’s director (who even had his instructions played over the speakers at one point) repeatedly asked Brooks to replay songs and recreate crowd movements over and over again. The filming aspect of the concert might not have been so obtrusive had it been more low-key. It only became an issue when Brooks decided to mention the recording after several crowd-pleasing songs and implored the audience to repeat hooks time and time again. Herein lies the issue with Brooks’ show: for every two or three great performances, there was an unnecessarily long repetition of one of those songs. The audience came to hear Brooks, not each other, sing his hits.
That being said, Brooks didn’t only sing his own songs. Midway through the show, he performed a medley of covers that included classic-rock crowd pleasers like Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.” Those are songs everyone’s heard 1,000 times before, songs to which everyone has a response. Brooks and his band knew this and played them accordingly. They played the songs straight and played them well, leading to some of the show’s best moments. There’s something instantaneously moving about a crowd of 84,000 people singing “Na, na, na, na” during “Hey Jude.” However, there is something synthetic about recreating a genuinely moving moment, which happened when Brooks asked the crowd to repeat the “Na-na-na-na” refrain of “Hey Jude” ad nauseum.
For every moment that was diminished by the annoyance of the artificially yucked-up crowd responses, Brooks was able to masterfully bring the crowd back into his magnetic performance at the drop of his gloriously large, black Stetson cowboy hat.
It is not surprising that the best part of the show came once the filming was over. After finishing his set with perennial closer “The Dance” and sending his band off, Brooks came back out armed only with his acoustic guitar for a segment he referred to as “housekeeping.” When he didn’t have to bear the responsibility of filming a nationally televised special, Brooks was at his best; he took requests from the audience, including a song that had never appeared on one of his studio albums. Brooks closed with a cover of “American Pie,” backed only with the voices of the tens of thousands of people in attendance. And he didn’t even have to ask them to sing it again.
It was part concert, part TV special, but it was all Garth. For one night, Notre Dame Stadium wasn’t the home of the Irish; it was the temple of country music, and Brooks was the presiding minister preaching his gospel of authenticity and charisma. There is no artifice with this man; he is all Garth all the time. He is admittedly a guy who was going nowhere that found himself at the center of one of the biggest events at one of the most famed schools in the country. It is with this humility and self-awareness that he was able to make the large and impersonal stadium feel like a small bar where he was singing to you, and only you. No small feat for no small performer.
God might have brought the rain and snow Saturday night, but Brooks brought the thunder.