Saturday night at Tiger Stadium, country superstar Garth Brooks received an ovation usually reserved for game-winning touchdowns.
It was 17 songs into an already electric show when Brooks shouted to the crowd, “I have to ask you, Baton Rouge, is it time?”
Then fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly began the opening notes of “Callin ‘Baton Rouge.”
Since Brooks released the tune in 1993, it has played countless times at Tiger Stadium. Yet it was the first time Brooks performed it himself in Death Valley.
This was the moment so many were waiting for – some came wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the song’s title, and most knew every word.
“Operator won’t you put me on through, I got to send my love down to Baton Rouge,” the enormous crowd sang along with the chorus. The roar from inside the full stadium drowned out the fiddle for a few bars and was recorded on a seismograph nearby, according to an LSU sports official, bringing to mind the LSU football “earthquake game” against Auburn in 1988.
As the song wound down, fans began to cheer, “LSU! LSU! ”
“That was even better than I could have ever dreamed it could be,” Brooks said.
Brooks built his fame as a country superstar in the early 1990s by cutting chart-topping albums filled with unforgettable songs. He followed them with explosive live shows filled with smoke, light shows and stunts that saw Brooks flying by harness across the arena.
Then he was the face of “new country,” and some fans blamed him for altering the genre in unwelcome ways.
Today, Brooks’ live show remains exhilarating. His high-flying stunts are gone, but the 60-year-old artist still works up a sweat while hopping and running across the stage.
In the eyes of many country fans, he is now one of country music’s most respected elders.
According to the concert promoter, more than 102,000 tickets had been sold for the Tiger Stadium show, the largest of the Brooks’ ongoing “Stadium Tour.” Concertgoers braved traffic jams and unbelievable beer lines to get to their seats.
Just after sundown, the band began cranking out “All Day Long” from Brooks’ 2018 album, “Fun.” Brooks entered the four-sided stage by rising from a platform beneath the drum kit, singing into his signature headset microphone. He followed with a string of fan favorites from the early ’90s. During these classics, Brooks roamed the stage connecting with his people. He pointed and waved to fans, read their signs and wished one person a happy birthday.
“When I go to concerts, I go to hear the old stuff!” he yelled out.
After a full stadium singalong of “Two Pina Coladas,” Brooks said, “The greatest thing you can do to an artist is sing their stuff right back to them!”
Then he started the inspirational ballad “The River.” Cellphone lights dotted the stadium, creating an ethereal effect that shifted the mood from rowdy to otherworldly.
Brooks has a gift for designing setlists that lift the crowd to a peak and then gently return them to earth for a slow, sentimental ballad.
He also knows how to use humor to lighten the mood again. He carried an acoustic guitar throughout the night but only played it occasionally.
“I use this pretty much to hide my gut, but I do know one chord on it,” he said, before strumming the opening to “Friends in Low Places,” a barnburner of a performance that included crew members shooting confetti cannons into the crowd and Brooks stealing a camera from a videographer so he could run along the stage’s south end to record the crowd.
In his first encore, Brooks returned to the stage solo to play requests from fans. The band rejoined Brooks to perform “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born.” As the song began to swell, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks’ wife and collaborator, appeared on stage to showcase her legendary voice.
Before launching into Yearwood’s 1991 hit “She’s In Love With the Boy,” Brooks told Yearwood that being in Tiger Stadium was “heaven on Earth.”
Many in the crowd would likely agree.