Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
arth Brooks may have stood outside of country music by and large for 17 years, but he is jumping back in with both feet and more.
Brooks released "Man Against Machine" in November, his first disc of original music in 13 years. Last fall, he launched a world tour, which is rolling out with multiple dates in multiple cities, sometimes playing two shows a night.
Brooks may have been off for a long time, save an occasional benefit concert here and there and Las Vegas gigs, which were a different breed of show. What's quite obvious though is that he has a well-oiled machine. But do not mistake that for a singer and band content with doing it for the umpteenth time. Far far from it.
Brooks was on fire for a good stretch of the night, particularly the first batch of songs where rarely has anyone gotten into a stronger start so immediately and for so long.
The night began with a better version of "Man Against Machine" than is on the CD, while then going squarely back to far more traditional country roots with the cowboy song "Rodeo," "Two of a Kind (Workin on a Full House)," "The Beaches of Cheyenne," The River," the tropical summer song "Two Pina Coladas" and the honky tonk of "Papa Loved Mama."
Brooks wisely picked his songs, offering a lot of old material much more traditional country sounding than rock. These were the types of songs ready made for singalongs with little overt pandering from Brooks.
Brooks had no trouble bringing it either. This man was like a machine when it came to putting his heart and soul into his music ("Shameless" was a clear example).
But almost more importantly was the energy this 52 year old still has. He was huffing and puffing a bit towards the end of the night, needing to catch his breath. Who could fault him though as he used the entire stage, going to the back of the stage on a number of occasions to sing for fans behind the stage. The amount of effort put into one show made you wonder how he could somehow do two shows in a night, which he is doing Friday and Saturday nights.
The Brooks juggernaut has the benefit of a veteran band with two of them having been aboard for about 25 years. Perhaps the key player is ace fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly along with Bruce Bouton on pedal and lap steel and Mike Palmer on drums.
Interestingly, for all the grief Brooks has attracted over the years for veering his country towards pop, he sure wasn't afraid to let the fiddle in particular stand out. Mattingly was front and center, and like the bandleader, engaged in racing around the stage.
While a Brooks concert in the past could have plead guilty to too many stage effects, the emphasis here really was on the song and band. Yes, there were plumes of smoke on "Standing Outside the Fire," the closing song of the 130-minute show and a spherical object containing the drum set that went on a riser during a very high energy take on "The Fever" and a bit more, but this was an arena show, after all.
But an intimacy remained with songs like Brooks' personal longtime favorite, "The Dance," closing the regular set.
One thing that remained the same is the obvious satisfaction that Brooks derives from the enthusiasm of his fans. He raised his arms to the sky on a number of occasions, put his hand to his heart and expressed a deep sense of thanks. While he took nothing for granted (a plus), Brooks could easily (and perhaps rightfully) be accused of milking the response of the crowd.
It's almost as if Brooks, for reasons unknown, doesn't have enough confidence that his audience will go with him. This, however, is a symbiotic relationship as the crowd clearly fed him.
Brooks received mid-concert help from wife Trisha Yearwood, who did a short five-song set, starting with "In Another's Eyes," a duet with her husband. Yearwood was so moved that she had a slight bit of trouble in getting focused on her next song, "PrizeFighter," the single from her latest disc. She closed with her excellent career song, "She's in Love With the Boy."
And then it was up to Brooks to step it up once again, which he did with "Shameless" and the fast-paced, fiddle driven "Callin' Baton Rogue."
Brooks told those in the near sell-out crowd to warn their friends because he wasn't sure the energy level could be that high in the remaining five Beantown shows. That would be a head scratcher though given the amount that Brooks - and fans - put into opening night.
Brooks acknowledged that he and his band are getting into a good groove on the tour, and he and friends certainly were all in on Boston's opening night.
Karyn Rochelle, a songwriter who also sang backing vocals for Brooks, opened with a short, pleasing four-song set. She played a few songs that others turned into hits "From a Table Away (Sunny Sweeney) and "Red High Heels (Kellie Pickler), showing they did not have a whole lot over here thanks to a twangy, supple voice.