Garth Brooks routinely performs at stadiums and arenas. But he still seemed pumped up to be entertaining a crowd of 500 — most of whom had won tickets in country radio contests — at Prospectors Grille and Saloon in Mt. Laurel, Dec. 2.
I know he almost always seems enthusiastic, in any setting. But still, he really seemed to be having the time of his life at this 80-minute, 17-song show, and seemed particularly thrilled at the crowd’s eagerness to sing along or even carry parts of certain songs on their own.
The show was part of Brooks’ Dive Bar Tour, named after his June “Dive Bar” duet single with Blake Shelton, and features his longtime six-piece backing group, the G Men. It’s an intermittent tour, comprising just one show or so a month. The New Jersey show was supposed to be part of a double-header, with a late-night show to follow, hours later, in Foxborough, Mass.
However, snow forced the postponement of the Massachusetts show. The new date hasn’t been announced yet but will take place later this month or next year, along with an added leg of the Dive Bar Tour. “This is good for us; we enjoy it,” he said from the Prospectors stage.
Brooks also talked a lot about the dive bars where he and the band played in their early days, though, for the record, Prospectors is not a dive bar. It’s clean and nice and spacious (by local-venue standards) and also represents an important venue for country music in the South Jersey/Philly market. It’s just a lot smaller than the places where Brooks normally plays.
The Dive Bar Tour has brought him “full circle,” he said. In recognition of the number of covers he used to have to perform, in his early days, he included quite a few of them in the show, including the George Strait hit “Amarillo by Morning” (before which he talked about Strait’s huge influence on him), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark,” and bits of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” The last two were included as examples of universally known sing-along songs, and preceded Brooks’ own contribution to this genre, “Friends in Low Places.”
He talked about his days playing at Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater, Okla., the city where Brooks, an Oklahoma native, attended the Oklahoma State University and got his start as a singer-songwriter. He said he remembers being at Willie’s and wondering if he could ever write a song that seemingly everybody, everywhere, would sing along to instantly.
Other songs he performed in Mt. Laurel ranged from feverishly paced hits such as “All Day Long,” “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)” and “Standing Outside the Fire” to tender ballads like “Unanswered Prayers” and “To Make You Feel My Love,” and the easy-going drinking songs “Two Piña Coladas” and “Dive Bar.” All featured sharp but never showy backing by the G Men, of course.
He said “Callin’ Baton Rouge” was his favorite song to perform, whether in a dive bar or a stadium.
The show also represented an opportunity to get up close with fans in a way he can’t at other venues. When a fan handed him a bag of M&M’s before “Two Piña Coladas,” he said “I haven’t had dinner” and ate a few, and continued to munch some in the middle of the song. And when another fan asked him to sign his prosthetic foot, he shrugged, said “This might be something I’ve never done before,” and did it.
He seemed so happy to be doing this show one imagines he’ll keep doing “dive bar” shows for a while. It would be nice if more artists of his stature followed suit, not just for their fans, but for themselves. Brooks doesn’t particularly need to be reinvigorated, but I can think of a few superstars who could use a shot of the up-close-and-personal.
Here is the show’s setlist:
“All Day Long”
“Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House”
“Two Piña Coladas”
“Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
“To Make You Feel My Love”
“Fishin’ in the Dark”
“Standing Outside the Fire”
“Amarillo by Morning”
“Callin’ Baton Rouge”
“The Thunder Rolls”
“Friends in Low Places” (preceded by excerpts from “American Pie” and “Piano Man”)
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