Garth Brooks told the crowd at the South By Southwest Outdoor Stage on Ladybird Lake Saturday night (March 18) that he “came her for one reason — to have fun and raise some hell.” Check and check.
Brooks’ first appearance at SXSW raised plenty of ruckus, of course. Saturday’s free show, his first Austin concert in 25 years, was a surprise announcement on Friday morning, putting in motion an intricate but, from all indications, smooth process for getting 16,000 fans — both SXSW badge holders and Austin residents — into the show. Then, on Friday night, he played a surprise solo acoustic show at the Broken Spoke Dancehall, filling in while the house band was on break.
So Brooks made his mark on Austin this weekend — and certainly did on Saturday with a characteristically high-energy, 90-minute show that was heavy on the hits and flaunted plenty of earnest showmanship. Few hype up a crowd like Brooks, after all, and his blend of genuine exuberance (lots of teeth and sweeping arm gestures) with practiced self-effacement to make the open-air concert feel like a backyard hoedown. It may have been scaled down a bit to comply with local noise curfews (“We don’t call it noise; we call it music,” Brooks noted), but it didn’t lack any of the punch Brooks and his 11-member band put into their arena shows.
Bellowing “Hellooooooo Texas!,” Brooks — dressed in a cowboy hat, black work shirt over a Mumblers T-shirt and jeans — got things started with a dramatic “Rodeo” and the honky-tonky energy of “Two Of A Kind (Workin’ On A Full House).” And while there were a few gentler moments in the 19-song set — “The River,” “Shameless” and “The Dance” — the Saturday night party spirit took precedence as Brooks and company rolled through the likes of “Two Pina Coladas,” “Poppa Loved Mama,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and “Friends In Low Places.”
He also treated the Austin crowd to truncated solo acoustic renditions of “Unanswered Prayers” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” while the encores began with a solo version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and a strum through George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning” with fiddler Jimmy Mattingly.
Brooks took it home with “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” “Longneck Bottle” and “Standing Outside The Fire,” as well as a well-received promise to return to Austin before another quarter-century elapsed. And, he said, “I’m gonna tell everybody I came to Austin to play South By Southwest.” With as much noise as he made doing it, the kid probably has a good chance to be discovered, too.