Gratitude rolled like thunder from Garth Brooks to his audience of over 50,000 fans, who echoed it back at the Sugar Bowl Country Kickoff at the Caesar Superdome on Saturday September 2. The mutual storm of love surrounding the 61-year-old country megastar presenting his first New Orleans concert since 2015 was palpable. "As sad as these times have been, I needed this!" he exclaimed at one point, running to every side of the stage to acknowledge all parts of the audience, even requesting the stadium lights be turned up so he could read signs and faces.
He took the stage after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band opened with their solid country-rock sound, followed by the energetic, sparkling bell bottom wearing, Baskin, Louisiana, native Lainey Wilson. Wilson's diverse repertoire ranged from her "What Would Dolly Do?" homage to Dolly Parton and country music to a high-powered cover of 4 Non-Blonde's 1993 hit "What's Up".
The 1990s continued as a theme for Brooks, who warned the crowd that it was going to be a night of his "old songs". His playlist included "Rodeo" (1991), "That Summer" (1993), "Low Places" (1990), "Thunder Rolls" (1990), "The River" (1991), "Unanswered Prayers" (1990), "We Shall be Free" (1992), "Beaches of Cheyenne" (1995), "Ain't Going Down Til the Sun Comes Up" (1993), and "The Dance", (1990). The crowd sang along so boldly to both "Unanswered Prayers" and "Low Places" that these classics were fully led at times by the audience as Garth grinned and touched his heart or removed his hat in thanks.
Though no earthquakes resulted as they did in the Tiger Stadium concert in May 2022, the response was nonetheless still seemingly seismic for "Callin' Baton Rouge". The song was originally by written Dennis Linde and recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys in 1978, but Brooks has made it one of his calling cards.
The show was full of country music kudos from Brooks, starting with the late Chris Leroux sweatshirt he sported, to the medley of songs he performed in honor of his idol George Strait: "Troubadour", "Fireman", "Amarillo by Morning". He took time throughout the show to compliment and introduce his band, most of whom have been with him since the beginning, including longtime backup vocalists Vicki Hampton and Robert Bailey, fiddle and key player David Gant, drummer Mike Palmer, and fiddler Jimmy Mattingly, who is one of three fiddlers that have played with Brooks to be inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame this September 16. His show was also a continual thank you to Louisiana, its fans and its places, and the support he received there in his early years, including several references to the Bear Creek Steakhouse in St. Helena Parish where he got his start.
When his wife of 17 years, Trisha Yearwood, made a surprise visit as part of the encore, she rose on a platform from beneath the stage, not unlike her dramatic rise as his backup singer to launching her solo career. After a kiss, Brooks acknowledged that women must work "twice as hard as men" to earn what they deserve. Yearwood stayed for three songs, joining Brooks for a duet cover of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's "Shallow", performing her own "She's in Love with the Boy", and ending together with the grand finale "Standing Outside the Fire".
The crowd left in smiles and cowboy hats, creating a parade of country music fans snaking through the CBD as they worked their way back to their cars, hotels, bars, and restaurants. While those the same age Brooks may have gone right to bed after a long day at the inaugural Sugar Bowl Country Kickoff that began at 5:30 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m., those younger no doubt were in the right place to stay out "until the sun comes up".
*All photos by Sarah Douglas.