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Review: Garth Brooks, bringing back the '90s in first of four Philly shows

Garth Brooks wears you down.

With assistance from his wife, Trisha Yearwood, the country star played a 2 ½-hour, over-the-top from the get-go show at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night.

It was just the beginning of the Oklahoman's weekend workload — Brooks and his seven-piece band were slated to do a 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday, followed by another show on Saturday night, plus a Sunday evening finale. They're his first shows in Philadelphia in almost 19 years, a figure Brooks rounded up to 20 in stressing the momentousness of the occasion. (Some tickets are still available for all three remaining shows.)

That's a fitting number, because in many ways it feels like Brooks and his super-intense relationship with his middle-American fanbase skipped a generation.

To say Brooks was big in the 1990s would be a massive understatement. A list of his record-setting commercial accomplishments — "Top Selling Solo Artist In History!" — were flashed on a video screen before he made his dramatic smoke-filled cowboy-hat-in-profile entrance to "Baby Let's Lay Down and Dance," one of only two songs performed from his new album Gunslinger.

Cyclical 20-year nostalgia is in full effect in the culture at large, but never mind the Nirvana T-shirts: That decade really belonged to Garth, who remade country music in his own hyperactive image, marrying big-belt-buckle and fiddle-and-steel guitar semiotics with arena rock bombast and '70s singer-songwriter sincerity.

Even before the 55-year-old still-manic showman took the South Philly stage in leaps and bounds on Friday night, promising that the crowd-pleasing show would deliver "the old stuff," the sentimental remembrance of the years of the Clinton presidency was apparent in the opening acts.

Both Mitch Rosell and Karyn Rochelle played four-song sets that included an original tune about how they were raised on " '90s country," with lyrics rife with references to artists and songs of that era, including nods to Brooks and Yearwood, naturally.  (Rochelle then went to work as one of Brooks' backup singers, and Rosell, who wrote the headliner's new single, "Ask Me How I Know," was brought back onstage to watch as it was performed live for what Brooks said was the first time ever.)

Brooks' set opened with a high-energy run of his kind of country: A mixture of souped-up cowboy songs and honky-tonkers like "Rodeo" and "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House" with trad-hillbilly instrumentation with screaming lead guitar and booming drums. The ersatz Jimmy Buffett cheese of "Two Pina Coladas" was the hokey low point, but he put over the comforting concept of "Unanswered Prayers" with grace, the revenge melodrama of "The Thunder Rolls" with brio.

Yearwood's set comes in the middle of her husband's. After duetting on "In Another's Eyes," he exited. And while he's the unstoppable-force entertainer, she's the superior singer, with a warm, engaging delivery and '90s hits of her own. Marketing-wise, "XXX's and OOO's (American Girl)" doubled as an advertisement for her Food Network show Trisha's Southern Kitchen.  "PrizeFighter" was dedicated to cancer survivors and accompanied by clips from Susan G. Komen fund-raising walks Yearwood has participated in, including one ending at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, complete with a photo op by the "Rocky" statue.      

Brooks is a shameless hype man and expert panderer — yes, he did his trademark cover of Billy Joel's "Shameless," while wearing a Phillies hat. He's expert at both egging on the adulation from a crowd that's been waiting two decades to see him and directing attention back at his people, who express their demographic strength in numbers by declaring their allegiance to Garth. "Philadelphia, I'm in love with you guys!," he shouts right back at them.

He can be self-deprecating — joking that his acoustic guitar is just a prop "to hide my gut" — as well as self-celebratory, as when he followed painstaking introductions to each and every band member by asking for a round of applause "for the guy I've been playing music with for longer than anybody else — me!"

The main part of the set came to a conclusion with "Friends in Low Places," the rowdy bar-room singalong that's nigh-on-impossible to resist (even if it lacks the specificity of great country saloon songs like Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar"), followed by the carpe diem showstopper "The Dance."

Whatever you do, don't leave before the (lengthy) encore. The show-biz slickness of the main set can be too much to take. Brooks sweats for real, but the exaggerated enthusiasm with which everyone on stage throws themselves into their task comes off as choreographed.

Something more subtle happened next, however. When Brooks returned wearing that Phillies hat, he was on stage solo, with just his acoustic guitar, which of course he was actually playing. He took unscripted requests from handmade signs in the crowd, and his effective tenor was in fine form.

Off-the-cuff highlights included the haunting "What's She Doing Now," from 1991's Ropin' the Wind, and a cover of Bob Seger's "Turn The Page." He relished singing a line in Joel's "Piano Man," with a proud pugnacity familiar from the original: "Cause he knows it's been me they been comin' to see, to forget about life for a while." Best of all was when he coaxed Yearwood back on stage for her 1992 hit "Walkaway Joe," in which he stayed out of the way while accompanying her on guitar.

Eventually, the band came back to end with a bang: That version of "Shameless" and the closing "Standing Outside the Fire," another overcooked song about seizing the day. The high point, though, was "Much Too Young Too Feel This Damn Old,"  the first single released on Brooks' first album, way back in 1989. It's aged well, pointing up the folly of a young man feeling sorry for himself even as it's sung nearly 30 years down the road by a singer hell bent on making his fans feel young again.