Since he galloped into the music arena more than 30 years ago, Garth Brooks hasn’t wasted time pursuing modest dreams or humble plans. While drastically reconstructing the very nature of country music (especially its approach to live shows), Brooks has lived large, chasing and surpassing the kinds of gargantuan numbers and lofty goals of which myths are made.
The guy who has sold more albums (170 million) than any solo artist in music history has made his myth and reputation known in big ways in Kansas City, many times over, starting with his sell-outs of Kemper Arena several times during three-, four-, and five-show stands through the 1990s.
In August, Brooks will deliver his first-ever show at Arrowhead Stadium, and in true Garth fashion, he will do so historically. By late July, more than 74,500 tickets had been sold, far surpassing the record set in September 2018 by Taylor Swift: 58,600.
So his Arrowhead show will be another KCMO milestone, but nothing Brooks has done around here over the past 30-plus years compares with what he did in 2007, when he christened a new downtown arena, then, several weeks later, commandeered it for nine shows in 10 nights, selling out every one (nearly 18,000 tickets for each show) and drawing fans from not only across the United States, but from other countries and continents as well.
The overture to his siege of the Sprint Center came in October, when Brooks cut the ribbon on the arena. The weekend before, he’d announced he would take over the arena for those nine shows and perform live for the first time in nine years – since he went on hiatus to become a full-time father and family man. All nine shows sold out within an hour.
Before those 2007 shows, Brooks hadn’t toured in earnest since late 1998. His only performances since then had been a handful of one-off benefits, radio conferences and awards specials. The premise for the Sprint Center extravaganza: Brooks was thanking Wal-Mart for having been such a great music-marketing partner. Earlier that year, he’d ended his exclusive sales agreement with the retailer after two years.
So for Kansas City, this was a singularly unique and significant worldwide event, and for 10 days, the city became a focal point of the music world, especially country music.
In November 2007 I was covering music for The Kansas City Star, where we considered several ways to cover this extraordinarily large and prolonged event. The tour was providing tickets to the media for only one performance: the second show on Tuesday, Nov. 6, which was, no coincidence, the day Brooks’ mega CD/DVD package The Ultimate Hits went on sale.
Given the interest in Kansas City and far beyond (I met fans from as far away as northern California, British Columbia and Ireland) and the concurrent explosion of the blogosphere and social media, we decided to hit the secondary ticket market and get tickets to all nine shows and cover every one. The online response validated that decision.
These would be Brooks’ first concerts in Kansas City since May 1996 and the first-ever Garth shows I’d attend. I’d heard plenty about his live performances: They were legendary for their nonstop, high-flying energy. Nonetheless I wasn’t prepared for just how relentlessly dynamic they would be.
The time off hadn’t diminished even slightly Brooks’ enthusiasm for performing before 18,000 fans who adored him as much as they loved his music. My first exposure to a live version of Friends in Low Places was a lifetime high-water mark for the uproarious, orgasmic sing-along it prompted – a mark that would be exceeded several times in the ensuing eight shows.
Brooks was everything he’d been renowned for. Beyond his high-octane energy and enthusiasm, he was effusive with charm, kindness, humility, optimism and gratitude. He was Ted Lasso before Jason Sudeikis could grow a mustache, and the first of my nine reviews reflected all that. But as each show passed, I wondered how he could possibly sustain it all for another night and another ravenous crowd expecting nothing but the best from him.
Yet he did. Every time. For me, the peak and the point-of-no-return of the entire run came with show No. 6 – a Saturday night. In the hours before the show, the atmosphere in the sparkling-new P&L district had become electric, crackling with beer-boosted excitement and rowdy, whiskey-fueled anticipation. The sing-alongs outside the arena were loud and boisterous, as if a World Cup soccer crowd were congregating.
That energy consumed the Sprint Center, and Brooks tapped into it, deeply, and unleashed a show for the ages. From start to finish, from the floor to the rafters, the arena quaked and rocked. The entire evening felt like a prolonged grand finale – one sustained moment of victorious euphoria.
Yet Brooks still had three more shows ahead of him. I suppose fans’ reactions to those final nights depended on whether they’d seen any of the previous shows (and plenty of fans saw several). For me, those three felt like Ground Hog Day. Or like a hangover brunch the morning after a wild wedding and debauched reception: Mind, body and spirit were saturated, spent, gleefully exhausted.
But Garth is the legend he is because he refuses to waste an opportunity to give every person in the arena a night to remember, My endurance was flagging and my spirit limping to the finish line, but Garth, the college track star, remained in full stride, the evangelical Okie cowboy in town to detonate fireworks, launch deafening sing-alongs and elevate spirits. He was sprinting to the finish, all the way to show No. 9, which was simulcast live to ticketed theaters across North America.
If there was any irony to acknowledge it was this: The final show – which was also the first announced show and the first of all nine shows to go on sale – was the outlier, the one whose enthusiasm was harnessed by the regulations and restrictions of the live broadcast. It was also the only one that didn’t include a set by country star Trisha Yearwood, Brook’s spouse, who had opened each preceding night with a lively set of her own.
When the siege was over and downtown Kansas City was back to normal, some palpable post-Garth doldrums set in: Life was earthbound again, back from all those high-speed odysseys into the music stratosphere. Brooks, however, clearly was prepared to soften that adrenaline withdrawal. In January 2008, he would reel off five shows in two days at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Ten years later, in May 2017, he returned to the Sprint Center for another excessive run: seven shows in five nights spread over two weekends. I saw five of those shows, including two that he performed on the same day – a matinee and an evening show. Which was kind of like watching a pitcher start both games of a doubleheader. Brooks was 55 at that point – eligible for AARP benefits – and though his voice started sounding a bit ragged towards the end of the run, he still dashed around for two hours, stoking every crowd like a cheerleader at a college football game. And this time, Kansas City wasn’t his lone stop. It was one of several dozens of cities in North America getting similar, heavy doses of Garth. He is indefatigable.
In 2021, he will be in Kansas City for a one-show, one-night stand– his first since September 1992 and his first show at Kemper Arena. At Arrowhead he will perform in the round in the middle of the playing field, which opens up seating to all 360 degrees of the stadium. Thus the attendance record, which, for perspective, eclipses the attendance for the Chiefs-Titans AFC Championship Game in January 2020, which was 73,656.
Numbers matter to Brooks: album sales, ticket sales, hit singles. But when it comes to live performances, venue size doesn’t matter much. He has always played to fans farthest from the stage, to fans in the back: of the room, the theater, the arena, and, in this case, at the top of the fifth-largest stadium in the NFL. It’s no slight feat. In this town, no one has ever done it to a crowd this large. If anyone can, it’s Garth, pursuer and conqueror of the indomitable.