was one of the first artists to bring an arena-rock aesthetic to country music, complete with pyrotechnics, flashy light shows, and heaps of energy being expended by everyone on stage. That hasn’t changed in the 18 years since the superstar was last in Portland.
At his first of five concerts at the Moda Center this week, Brooks ran around a multi-level stage, working up a healthy sweat as he played to every corner of the arena with mixture of throat-shredding bombast and Hee Haw-style “aw shucks” humor. As he did, lights blinded the audience, steam shot up around his band, drummer Mike Palmer’s kit and the circular cage it was housed in flashed a variety of primary colors, and during the first big encore, various portions of the set lifted up and slowly spun Palmer and the two keyboardists in circles.
There’s no denying the thrill of a big ticket spectacle like this. (Compared to some arena shows I’ve seen, this was a comparatively bare-bones affair.) It’s just that Brooks really didn’t need it. If Bruce Springsteen proved anything when he was last in town at the same venue, it’s that with the right setlist, the right backing band, and the right level of energy and engagement, you can still keep an audience rapt and ecstatic without all the colorful distractions.
Brooks had all of that yesterday. His band, many of whom have been in the country star’s employ for decades, were razor sharp and nearly as spirited as their fearless leader. And the setlist was jam-packed with Brooks’ best known tracks, reaching as far back as his 1989 self-titled debut album and stopping along the way for raucous takes on “The Thunder Rolls” and the Jimmy Buffett-inspired “Two Piña Coladas.”
The bells and whistles mostly faded into the background unless Brooks specifically dre attention to them, like the moment when he climbed all over Palmer’s drum orb, or when he was taken back and forth on a conveyor belt towards the end of the night. Otherwise, the 53-year-old commanded the eye. When he wasn’t encouraging the audience to sing along, he was bellowing, pumping his arms in the air, slapping his hand on his heart as he beamed at the screaming masses around him.
Like any arena tour that has, by this point, logged almost 200 shows, there was a faintly scripted quality to yesterday's early-evening show. Brooks’ banter felt rote at times, as did some of the stage moves throughout the two-hour performance. That only became clearer when unplanned moments happened. It was charming as all get out to see Brooks react with delight to his wife Trisha Yearwood
’s stirring mid-set performance of “Georgia Rain.” And the most genuinely emotional moment of the night came when his Portland-bred backup singer Robert Bailey
visibly fought back tears at the huge ovation he got from the crowd (that, at least, had to have made up for Brooks referring to Bailey as “the bomb-dot-com”).
If there was any pure disappointment to be felt it was that Yearwood was only given a small, four-song set in the middle of the show—especially because it was a great showcase for her pipes, which still sounded magnificent as she tore through her hits “How Do I Live?” and “She’s in Love with a Boy.” But this wasn’t her show, so she took her quick moment in the spotlight, smooched her husband, and vanished.