It may not be the Oasis, but Joe's on Weed Street was an acceptable stand-in as country superstar Garth Brooks began his seven-stop "Dive Bar Tour" there Monday night and proved that he has friends in small places, too.
Backed by most of the band he brings to stadium shows -- six bandmates, but no backup singers -- Brooks fist-pumped, finger-pointed and humbly hat-doffed his way through a honky-tonk jukebox worth of old hits, one new single (twice) and some touching homages to country legends in a show that lasted a surprisingly generous 100 minutes at the North Side Chicago club.
Maybe it wasn't the Rolling Stones at the Double Door, but if you accept that the golden ratio in concert-going is size of talent to size of room, then this one was special, a night to get close and personal with a performer typically seen from, at best, binocular distance in a hockey arena.
-Brooks, one of the performers most capable of shrinking venues of 20,000 seats or bigger to something approaching intimacy, can similarly enlarge a place like Joe's, which might top out at 1,000.
-Joe's Bar, as it is sometimes also called, can reach ear-ringing volume levels, as Monday's patrons, winners of radio-station ticket giveaways and people "on the list," out-decibeled the band in screaming response to songs like "Friends in Low Places," "The Thunder Rolls" and "The Dance."
-And there's a lot to be said, when trying to engage an audience, for having recorded tunes they know by heart and playing them once again with enthusiasm, even passion.
Only a small portion of Monday's proceedings were taken up with serving the needs of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," which was filming portions of the show to air later on Monday's telecast, most specifically the TV premiere of Brooks' new single, called, not at all coincidentally, "Dive Bar."
After Brooks and his veteran backup band played that track twice to make sure there was a good one for Kimmel's show to use, he played the classic "Low Places" -- "singalong" is too moderate a word for what the audience did, especially in calling out the song's own dive bar, the Oasis -- and then was off and running.
Most of the setlist would be the Garth Brooks Spotify top tracks, if Brooks weren't one of the holdouts from the streaming music service. But there were a couple of deeper cuts prompted by requests he took from the audience, including the 1994 single "The Red Strokes," which Brooks said was "gonna suck," even as the verse and chorus he summoned up didn't.
In reality, Joe's is no Dive Bar except, perhaps, by current Garth Brooks stadium mega-concert standards. Before being reincarnated as Chicago's top country bar about a decade back, it was a sort of faux-beach club joint called Banana Joe's, and the room's details are still more warehouse than woodcraft.
But it is also a venue where the furthest patron is maybe 50 feet away from the stage, plenty close enough to see the Bob Seger tee-shirt Brooks was wearing and all the times he and the audience pointed back at each other: You! No, you!
Seger "has influenced my music so much," Brooks said, before playing the highly Seger-influenced "That Summer," a tune about a teenaged boy, an older woman and, well, nature. Later, he would do passable imitations of other heroes, the folks he and his band used to cover in their actual dive bar days, including Merle Haggard ("Mama Tried") and George Strait ("Amarillo By Morning").
For Brooks, the Dive Bar Tour is a stroke of showmanship meant to reconnect with his honky-tonk roots and/or push his new single off of the forthcoming LP, "Fun."
Co-written with Mitch Rossell and Bryan Kennedy, the tune "Dive Bar" is a short, highly affable homage to smaller watering holes where people can find fellowship or forget its loss. I'm not sure yet that it stands up amid the Brooks canon, but it's got a big, sing-along chorus about being in said bar's deep end on the weekend. And I'd certainly listen to "Dive Bar," a duet with fellow Oklahoman Blake Shelton, over most of the 46 songs currently ranked above it on Billboard's country chart.
The tune has been available to country radio since mid-June, but the full promotional push really started Monday, with the kick off of the Dive Bar Tour coinciding with the song first being made available to the public via Amazon (on Prime Day, naturally).
Brooks and Shelton are scheduled to perform it live together in Boise Friday night, a performance which will, of course, yield a video. And Monday's performance of the tune at Joe's, as mentioned, was shown on "Kimmel."
Plus, there are scheduled to be six more dive bar shows amidst his current stadium tour. In each case, as happened in Chicago, venues will be announced on local country radio, which will also dole out the tickets.
"You're gettin' to play stadiums and you're gettin' to play dive bars," Brooks said in his July 7 Facebook live chat announcing the mini-tour. "And trust me, man, there's no difference other than the size."
There was, in fact, a big difference in seeing him Monday at Joe's versus seeing him at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont back in 2014.
Brooks, apparently, likes starting things in Chicago, because the shows in north suburban Rosemont began a tour, too, with a run of 11 sold-out, relatively affordable shows, and at a hockey rather than football stadium. It was his return to full-time touring after, essentially, a 17-year hiatus to focus on raising his kids, he said.
Brooks showed then he could still bring the big stadium energy, the fervor for playing the greatest hits, the showmanship to take off his hat in humility over the warm reception he got, a gesture that, naturally, generated an even warmer reception.
He was, I wrote then, "at least 50 percent country ham," and I did not mean it disparagingly. The guy radiated enjoyment at being on stage, no matter how far away that stage might be.
And like the veteran performer he is, he gave the impression of enjoying it even more on Monday's much closer stage. As the show was winding down, he pulled out another crowd favorite, Billy Joel's tune "Shameless," which Brooks took to No. 1 in 1991.
Fittingly for Monday's setting, it is a song that, instead of being one of Brooks' more typical anthems, has an easy, old-school, honky-tonk feel to it. Even more fittingly for this performer, it is a song about being hopelessly, unabashedly shameless.
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