It's always Christmas in Gruene, Texas, where shops keep the trees up year-round and the Gristmill's dangling lights give the riverside restaurant a holiday twinkle. But Monday night felt more like a holiday than usual.
Late in August, country megastar Garth Brooks announced he'd be adding a Texas stop to his national tour of dive bars, which coincides with new single "Dive Bar" with Blake Shelton. While not a dive bar per se, the storied Gruene Hall proved just dusty enough to make for an exception. The historic Texas town of Gruene responded to the show exactly how you'd expect — by christening Sept. 23 "Garth Brooks Day" and offering the man a festival-size welcome on a Main Street-size scale.
Tickets for the event were awarded only through giveaways hosted by local country radio stations. But being an unlucky caller wasn't going to keep the area's Garth-heads from coming out. "We've got two huge screens, and the show will be blasting in the street!" an excited Facebook event promised.
Was it the screens that sold the thousands of people who turned up to fill the street outside Texas' oldest dance hall Monday night? Or the assurance that all nearby restaurants would be open?
No, I think it was likely the fact that "Garth (expletive) Brooks" (as chanted by the crowd) was just a fence and some doors out of reach.
Even before Brooks announced "I'm home" to the 500 screaming ticket winners inside the hall, he took the stage like he was back where he belonged. He looked out at the crowd and, pointing with both hands, said "This! This!" repeatedly. "To be here in Texas, it just feels so right."
Throughout the show, Brooks referenced "the last time I was here" — a show early in his career when the crowd was much smaller and the first notes of "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House" weren't met with absolute bedlam. Before launching into a cover of "Amarillo by Morning," he said, "The last time I was here, I wanted to be George Strait so bad."
"And today I'll leave here still wanting to be George Strait so bad!" The crowd was thrilled. Nothing will win you a hat tip among a crowd of country fans like admitting that you're not George Strait.
Even though he's not George Strait, Brooks' performance was classic in its own right. His voice boomed out clear and easy during "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)," and he didn't miss a breath, beat nor word in fast-paced "Ain't Goin' Down ('Till the Sun Comes Up)." He led the crowd's boot-stomping throughout "The Thunder Rolls." He sounded very much how I remember him on my parents' best-of CD compilation.
Later, Brooks' round face glistened and, beaming, he removed his hat and brought it to his chest for the final, rousing verse of "Friends in Low Places." There wasn't a friend in the low place who didn't join him.
Much like with his surprise Broken Spoke show in March 2017, it's clear Brooks prefers a venue with ceilings so low they nearly brush the top of his cowboy hat. He prefers a crowd that screams, not sings, his songs back at him, beers raised and hats askew. He prefers to use "freaking" instead of its alternative when telling the crowd how "freaking awesome this is, right now." But most of all, Garth Freaking Brooks prefers to be a little too big for the venue he's playing. Because where else can you find the validation brought by a sliver of stage in a cramped honky-tonk in a small Texas town whose residents have shut down whole streets in anticipation of your arrival?
“This is exactly the way I wanted it,” Brooks said at one point. Luckily, Gruene Hall wouldn't have had it any other way.
"All Day Long"
"Two of a Kind"
"Two Pina Coladas"
"Ain't Goin' Down ('Till the Sun Comes Up)"
"Amarillo by Morning"
"Must Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)"
"Callin' Baton Rouge"
"The Thunder Rolls"
"Beaches of Cheyenne"
"Friends in Low Places"