FOXBOROUGH — Typically, when an arena-proven performer brings his act to more intimate stages, one of several things is going on: a tour warm-up, a secret show, a readjustment to the realities of ticket sales. Rarely does it ever come down to “just for the hell of it.” And yet, that seems to be the driving motivation behind Garth Brooks’s Dive Bar Tour, which landed Wednesday at the Six String Grill & Stage, mere steps from that other Foxborough venue the singer could easily fill. With tickets exclusively held by radio-contest winners, Brooks couldn’t even claim a (slim) profit motive. For 75 minutes, the best-selling male artist in country music history came to play, not put on a show, and his delight was palpable.
Taking the stage in a ballcap from his own merch line and a denim button-down over a T-shirt that said “Winter Wonderland” in what may (or may not) have been a wink at the weather cancellation of his original December date, Brooks instantly brought a cocky energy to opener “All Day Long” and effortlessly played to the room, not the rafters. The social-music roots of the gleeful, corny, fiddle-driven swing of “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” came more clearly to the fore, and if “The Thunder Rolls” didn’t have the stun power of stadium volume, it was all the more visceral for its presence in the enclosed space.
Brooks also responded to and interacted with the crowd in ways that would be impossible at his usual scale. If he’d worn his standard headset microphone, he wouldn’t have been able to sing the first verse of “Two Piña Coladas” off-mic to let the audience take the lead, and when everyone lost their minds recognizing the opening arpeggio of “Friends in Low Places,” Brooks stopped with a look of mock surprise. Meanwhile, his repeated “Let’s go someplace else . . .” segue made a solo-acoustic medley of “Unanswered Prayers,” “What She’s Doing Now,” “She’s Every Woman,” and “To Make You Feel My Love” feel thrillingly casual, a confidence between friends.
The grin Brooks bore throughout the medley should have undercut the sentiment, but that joy energized the show, from the loose spitfire “Ain’t Going Down ('Til The Sun Comes Up)” to “That Summer,” a wistful reminiscence about a youthful affair with an older woman that could have fallen flat coming from someone two days shy of his 58th birthday but instead rippled with warmth. And on the wide, airy “The River,” he basically hugged himself with a huge smile on his face as he sang the final chorus. “I will sail my vessel 'til the river runs dry,” sang the country megastar, and though he may have been captaining a smaller boat, the current flowed strongly still.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc
At Six String Grill & Stage, Patriot Place, Foxborough, Wednesday