BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
“This is a once in a lifetime show for us,” Garth Brooks said Thursday afternoon, standing backstage in shorts and a baseball cap with wife Trisha Yearwood.
Hours later, Brooks – and during her mid-show set, Yearwood – played with the kind of intensity and joy not often seen in performers who have been hitting stages for four decades (granted, with a several-years break in the mid-‘00s).
But this inaugural concert at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which pulled in the venue’s biggest crowd of 80,000-plus, left fans in the upper levels feeling less than charitable about MBS as a concert setting.
From the time openers Mitch Rossell and Karyn Rochelle shared quick sets through Brooks’ barnburner, complaints about sound, primarily on the 300-level, peppered social media and the MBS Facebook page .
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After the show, the venue team issued this statement: “Garth Brooks played the first concert tonight at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and it was a spectacular show that tens of thousands enjoyed. We have heard some fan concerns about sound quality in certain sections of the upper concourse and sound engineers are looking into that now. We do know that a breaker was tripped that powered speakers in the parts of the upper level for a small amount of time and was resolved.”
For those whose encounter wasn’t marred by sound issues – the floor seats and lower levels closest to the stage offered a crisp listening experience by stadium standards – Brooks’ return to Atlanta after a three-year gap was a triumph.
The intuitive singer-songwriter customized his opening salvo with a smoking version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” highlighted by the dancing fiddle of Jimmy Mattingly, the “rookie” of the Brooks/Yearwood band with a mere 24 years of membership.
Brooks, 55, looked like a kid unleashed on the playground as he raced down the catwalks that extended from each end of the oval stage centered in the middle of the field. Armed with a headset under his black cowboy hat and an acoustic guitar, he roamed the open stage and grinned through “Rodeo,” opening his arms wide at song’s end and basking in the roar of the fans.
So taken was Brooks with his surroundings that he could barely get through the “The River” without commenting, “That looks beautiful,” about the cell phone lights blazing through the stadium during the ballad.
While Brooks’ own stage is equipped to satisfy all sides in a massive stadium with its ramps and steps and overhead wrap of video screens, the MBS halo board offered another striking vantage point for concert footage, while the towering video column behind the end zone beamed atmospheric visuals.
It’s too bad that the delay between the live vocals and the video screens was so drastic that it was often more of a distraction than a supplement.
But Brooks was likely unaware of any sound or visual issues as he immersed himself in the adulation of the crowd and played to their desires to focus on “all of our old stuff.” (The show, ironically, was being filmed and recorded for a live album.)
He strolled the catwalk for his version of Jimmy Buffett-dom, “Two Pina Coladas,” zipped around the stage for the amusingly scathing “Papa Loved Mama” and splashed water on the front rows during a fiddle-tastic “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up).” His band ripped through the latter at full throttle, with the steel guitar of Bruce Bouton colliding gloriously with electric guitar squeals from Johnny Garcia.
Brooks also dug into his earliest roots when he was “just a guy and a guitar” for the simple, authentic “Unanswered Prayers” and received a warm response to his current hit - written by opener Rossell - “Ask Me How I Know.”
Yearwood’s portion of the concert began with the duet “In Another’s Eyes” which spotlighted her and Brooks as they locked pupils and made their way across the stage to each other in lovey-dovey bliss.
After Brooks departed, Yearwood, a native of Monticello, wove her buttery voice through the perky “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” and her soaring version of “How Do I Live.”
But she looked genuinely surprised when former President Jimmy Carter – and friend through their joint efforts for Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Work Project – arrived on stage to present her with a proclamation.
“She’s a great entertainer and a great cook!” Carter said. “She’s honored Georgia for many years. Now it’s time for Georgia to honor her.”
Yearwood wiped away tears before reiterating her pride in being a “Georgia girl” and singing a beautifully husky version of “Georgia on My Mind.”
Brooks effortlessly re-ignited the crowd with another set and long encore, including a fiery “Calling Baton Rouge” and his gotta-play-it anthem of proud Everyman-ness.
“I got a guitar to hide my gut…but I did learn four chords,” he said, picking the instantly recognizable opening of “Friends in Low Places.”
While not quite a “Born to Run”-level concert moment, it was close, as the stadium shouted heartily with every word, including the beloved third verse that never made the radio edit.
Brooks turned tender one more time for “The Dance” and tackled the signature song of longtime pal Billy Joel (a guitar-strummed “Piano Man”) as the show headed to its final inning.
Not everyone at MBS might have experienced the best of Brooks, but Brooks, as he always does, brought the best of himself to Atlanta.