Out there in the middle of the crowd, you couldn’t help but get swept up in it: A giant mob of Garth Brooks fans packed into the South by Southwest Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake, singing along at the top of their lungs to every single song.
“We know ’em all, Garth. We know ’em all,” the guy next to me assured Brooks from around 50 yards back, after Brooks shouted out “No way!” when the crowd nailed the first line of his 1989 smash “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” “On a scale of 1 to 10,” Brooks graded, “I’m going to give y’all an 11.”
Acknowledging that he hadn’t played in Austin for 25 years and promising to be back soon (ACL Fest, anyone?), Brooks clearly sated the appetite of a still-massive fan base that waited out his dozen-odd years of withdrawal from touring and making records. Coming to SXSW for a keynote conversation on Friday (plus a surprise solo appearance at the Broken Spoke that night), Brooks wrapped up a whirlwind visit with this free concert announced at the last minute.
Austin didn’t get the 30-song marathon show that Brooks has been playing in some arenas on his recent tour, in part because of the noise curfew for Auditorium Shores. Starting at 8:20 p.m. — 20 minutes late, apparently to accommodate long lines that filtered onto Auditorium Shores from the Palmer Events Center entry point — and ending at 9:50 p.m., Brooks played 14 songs plus a five-song encore.
The set list included two Billy Joel tunes (a full-band “Shameless” plus a solo “Piano Man” to start the encore), as well as a nod to Texas with George Strait’s classic “Amarillo By Morning.” What Brooks didn’t do was connect to the late-afternoon news of Chuck Berry’s death by pulling out “Johnny B. Goode” (like Hanson and Juliet Tango and the Waco Brothers and likely others were doing as the sun went down on SXSW sets around town).
That failure to respond musically to the loss of a major cultural touchstone reveals the down side of Brooks’ mega-professional production. Pretty much everything ran like a well-oiled machine, from superb sound quality to a carefully planned venue setup (with the help of SXSW) to a high-energy stage show epitomized by Brooks’ trademark headset microphone. And his dozen-strong band, which included Austin’s own Stephanie Davis, clearly is one of the best in the business.
But musicians that good no doubt could lay down a Chuck Berry tune at the drop of a hat. The performance, joyful and audience-pleasing as it was, appeared choreographed to the point of not accommodating the spontaneous moment that could have been magical.
Local opener Sunny Sweeney — who, much to his credit, Brooks praised sincerely at the end of his show — kindly found a way to honor Berry. Fellow Austin songwriter Chris Wall’s ballad “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” which Sweeney recorded on her new album, mentions Berry in its final chorus, and she played a sterling version of it. By the time Sweeney finished her well-received set, the modest crowd that had lounged on blankets for much of the day began swelling with later arrivals and pressing toward the stage, seeking prime spots for Brooks.
Pop-soul singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins also had a strong showing before Sweeney, following the SXSW downside of her less-than-ideal 1 a.m. Wednesday showcase with the jackpot score of a slot on the Brooks bill. Artists who played earlier in the day were Holly Macve, Shannon McNally, Cale Tyson and Colter Wall.
Garth Brooks set list:
2. Two of a Kind, Working on a Full House
3. The River
4. Two Pina Coladas
5. Papa Loved Mama
6. Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)
7. Unanswered Prayers
8. If Tomorrow Never Comes
9. That Summer
10. The Thunder Rolls
12. Callin’ Baton Rouge
13. Friends in Low Places
14. The Dance
15. Piano Man
16. Amarillo By Morning
17. Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)
18. Longneck Bottle
19, Standing Outside the Fire