It might be a cliché, but country singer Garth Brooks clearly loves to perform whether he’s playing to a few hundred people or several thousand fans. Currently in the midst of a stadium tour that's reportedly averaging 83,000 fans per stop, Brooks has played a handful of shows at what he calls dive bars across the nation.
Last night, he rolled into the Dusty Armadillo in Rootstown to play one such show and left a lasting impression as he truly embraced the intimate club's atmosphere, shaking hands with fans that stood up against the stage and sharing stories about the early days of his career.
Fans could win tickets through country radio station promotions and about 700 lucky patrons made the trek to the bar and restaurant for the show.
The Dusty Armadillo isn’t necessarily a “dive bar,” but it regularly features country music acts and likely resembles the joints where Brooks first played when he got his start in the '80s. The long concert hall with a low ceiling and a wide open dance floor (illuminated by black lights) features a small stage at one end, and that’s where Brooks and Co. positioned themselves. The ceiling was so low that Brooks could reach up and touch it. Not that he seemed to care. He regularly took off his black cowboy hat and just shook his head in disbelief as he stared the audience. Fans sang the lyrics to just about every tune he played from the get go.
Brooks started the 90-minute set with “All Day Long,” and as he sang the line “somebody’s gotta find that honky-tonky out on the county line,” he gestured emphatically to suggest the Dusty Armadillo was just that kind of place. With its mix of heavy guitars and chirping fiddle, the tune served as the perfect opening number.
After explaining that he was suffering from a cold, Brooks took things down a notch for “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,” a song that found him extending the microphone to the crowd, so fans could carry some of the load. Fans didn’t need any encouragement to sing along with Brooks as he launched into the Jimmy Buffett-like drinking ballad “Two Pina Coladas,” a song about “setting sale with Captain Morgan.” “I wanted to go back to the dive bars where it all started,” Brooks said at this point in the show. “It’s exactly like it was except that there’s more of you, and you know all the words.”
“With this tour, we can play the stuff we played when we played the dive bars,” Brooks said as a way of introducing his cover of the Nitty Gritty Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark.” During a mid-set acoustic segment, he spoke about playing in Stillwater, OK without any accompaniment in the early days. The tender tune showed off Brooks’ evocative voice and came off as if it were a classic folk or light pop tune. Brooks also demonstrated his connection to the pop and rock world by playing snippets of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Brooks and Co. plugged back in for a deafening version of “The Thunder Rolls,” a tune Brooks said worked well in both stadiums and bars. Appropriately enough, the rumbling bass mimicked the sound of an approaching storm. Prior to playing his monster hit, “Friends in Low Places,” Brooks recalled that he always wondered if he would ever write a song that “everyone would know the words to.” At its conclusion, he proclaimed, "If there's ever a place I feel like I belong, it's right fricking here."
The show came to an end with “The Dance,” a ballad that Brooks said has always served as the last song in his sets despite objections from his bandmates. Brooks then exited the rear of the club and a police escort led him off into the night on a deserted Rt. 44. Can't imagine it's ever that easy to leave a stadium gig.
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