Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Karyn Rochelle
Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro
Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014

No one worried that Garth Brooks had been stingy last night in the Greensboro Coliseum, during the first performance of a five-night stand that comes as part of the singer’s after-50 career renaissance. In fact, he’d been generous.

In about two hours, Brooks had played 20 songs, almost all of them hits that crisscrossed between his first seven albums, each of them landmarks of country music’s commercial rise. Though he released his first new album in more than a decade only last week, he forced the crowd to sit through only two of those nascent numbers, the deliriously loud set opener and title track “Man Against Machine” and the September single and positivity mantra “People Loving People.” At one point, he threw a guitar to a fan in the front row and grinned big. He nodded at the man’s partner, who was so happy that tears peeked from the corners of her eyes. And when he panted into his signature head-worn microphone between several songs, you actually worried that Brooks, who described himself early in the night as a “biscuit shy of 260,” had actually been too generous. You wanted to remind him that he was Garth Brooks, not The Boss, and that he could take it easy.

But there was one lingering question throughout the night: Just where was Trisha Yearwood, the similarly rebounding singer, Brooks’ spouse and the other entertainer whose very name had been printed on the ticket? Opener and Wilmington native Karyn Rochelle, a frequent Yearwood collaborator and a member of Brooks’ backing band, had played one of the songs she’d written for the singer during a brief, pleasant opening set. After that, though, there’d been no other mention of Yearwood. She was the night’s missing star.

And that’s exactly what Brooks was apologizing for when he began last night’s encore, explaining that Yearwood had performed at a benefit earlier that evening in New York and hadn’t made it back in time for her portion of the show. But Yearwood sprinted toward Brooks from behind, completing a classic bait-and-switch and sending a crowd that had roared off-and-on for nearly two hours into yet another tizzy. Yearwood had indeed performed at a “Save the Children Illumination Gala” at The Plaza hours before, flown to North Carolina and hustled to the arena under the aegis of a police escort. She squeezed three songs into a mini-set, as Brooks gave up the spotlight in order to strum the guitar in support.

Truth be told, Yearwood’s tardy bit was the evening’s energetic nadir, if only because the audience had invested so much enthusiasm into the preceding 20 songs. But just before she ended with “She’s in Love with a Boy,” the opening hit of her self-titled 1991 debut, she delivered what could have been the night’s mantra. When she arrived on the Grand Ole Opry years ago, she said, Porter Waggoner had offered simple advice: “Sing the song that brung you.”

Brooks had espoused that credo implicitly throughout the entire night, pulling out hit after hit for a set that omitted only a few of the lesser numbers from Double Live, one of the best-selling albums of all time. If you came to see a legacy act embody and enliven that legacy, Brooks didn’t disappoint.

He talked about his old-school fans and doubted anyone would recognize songs from a quarter-century ago, even if his 1989 debut has sold 10 million copies. After finishing “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” the poignant rodeo ballad at the middle of his first record, he displayed sheer disbelief: “When the oldest thing you bring gets that…” he said, smiling big like he did all night. He offered similar apologia for “That Summer,” still sexy after all these years, and even “The Thunder Rolls,” which he compared to a child who had survived a particular difficult delivery.

That kind of false, aww-shucks modesty has always been central to Brooks’ shtick, but at this late point in his life and that of his audience, it was the only grating element of an otherwise powerhouse evening. Here’s a guy who essentially broke the rules for how much music can sell, in effect wondering whether or not the first sold-out room of a five-night stand even remembered the songs that “brung” him. Of course they did. He actually had to stop playing “Friends in Low Places” after only one chord so that the crowd could cheer, uninterrupted, for 10 seconds. At one point, when Brooks dipped into the gentle “The River,” it seemed as if every person in the coliseum was holding up a cell phone, swaying and singing along to a tune to which they were powerless.

Maybe Brooks’ softball sentimentality is charming to some. But it felt strangely condescending, too, somehow discounting the pull those songs had on the people who sang them last night. It was as if he said, “I disappeared for a while, so surely you must not care about me. Maybe you disappeared, too.” That’s not how it works, of course, and he knew it. Early in the night, after launching with a new tune, he asked if the crowd remembered the older stuff, feigning true curiosity. When they roared in response, he assured them that was good, because the band had indeed brought all of the older stuff.

So why pretend they didn’t? To apologize to yourself for being an icon? At some point, Brooks should either age out of his veil of naïve humility or give in to it completely. Having it both ways insults the way people cherish the music he’s made, the way they carry it along like a childhood keepsake.

But that is a quibble of ideas, a small pock on an evening that was brilliantly executed. By the end of the night, after Brooks had danced about the stage with a sparkling silver electric guitar and leaned precariously into a drum kit that looked a little like a Gordian knot, he did start to seem like The Boss. Bigger and older than he used to be, Brooks seems a candidate for aging out of kinetic antics onstage. But Wednesday in Greensboro, when he put his head down between songs so as to swivel his black cowboy hat for the crowd, he seemed to be sucking down air, too.

That way, you know, he could afford to get wild again and again and again.