Walking out of Ford Field on Saturday night, I felt like I had made a mistake. My ears buzzed with the sound of a record-breaking, 70,000-strong audience sing-along. My mind raced to try and capture the memory of what I had just seen — a 58 year old Garth Brooks sprinting back-and-forth across a circular stage, followed by lots of subsequent panting. My throat hurt, of course, from all the cheering. In the back of my mind however, I couldn’t help but feel foolish. Or even worse, mean.
When I saw that Luke Combs was coming to Grand Rapids and Garth Brooks was playing in Detroit on back-to-back weekends, I immediately decided that I had to attend and compare both experiences. Combs and Brooks outline the ideal trajectory of a career in country music — Combs’s stardom is rising and Brooks is a bonafide legend. The opportunity to see both ends felt unmissable. However, I should have known that trying to compare anyone to a seven-time CMA Entertainer of the Year meant setting up the other artist for failure.
Still, as my starstruck daze starts to fade, I can see where my head was at: Combs has been heralded as the second-coming of neotraditional country — the ’90s sound that Garth is the King of. Combs’s latest album beat Brooks’s Hot Country Chart record for the most entries in a single week. The most explicit link between the two artists was drawn by Combs himself: During his concert, he covered one of Brooks’s signature songs, “The Dance.” The potential for Combs to become the next-generation Garth Brooks is clear — once one is able to reconcile their age differences.
Take, for example, the shows’ energetic highpoints. In the middle of “1, 2 Many,” one of Combs’s uptempo drinking songs, a crew member rushed a can of beer to the middle of the stage. There was a pause in the music as the crowd unraveled what was happening. When it clicked that, yes, he really was about to shotgun a beer on stage, the audience erupted.
During “Ain’t Goin’ Down (til’ the Sun Comes Up),” Brooks didn’t reach for a beer, but two uncapped water bottles. Instead of downing them (which seemed warranted given all of his running around), he splashed them around the stage, into the audience, and finally poured out two more onto a drum set.
While Brooks’s crowd interaction involved trading cowboy hats with a young fan for a few verses, Combs’s included refilling the contents of one audience member’s raised red solo cup with his own, mid-song. These approaches to audience engagement feel comical in comparison, but both artists’ enthusiasm, and more importantly, skill for connecting with their fans is obvious. Brooks showcased his ability to read the room when, after a sequence of fast songs, he decided to scrap the upcoming slow song on the setlist and keep the high energy going. Combs also demonstrated his ability to manage an audience. Even though he has two incredibly popular albums out, Combs held the crowd in the palm of his hand while playing an acoustic version of his unreleased song “Without You.”
I chalk this power up to the performers having what I hesitantly call “dad energy.” Not because they both have kids (Combs doesn’t), but because they care in a way that feels uniquely genuine. Brooks was all waves, hand-hearts and “Happy Birthdays!” during his show. He repeatedly expressed his gratitude, staring starry-eyed into the stands and opening his arms wide, as if he was embracing everyone.
Combs is less direct at showing his love, but just as emotional in his songs. “Refrigerator Door” and “Even Though I’m Leaving” were both sweet moments at his show that highlight Combs’s knack for appreciating life’s little things. “Dad energy” is about warmth. Lots of country artists are good at conveying joy or heartbreak, but it’s much harder to make a crowd feel safe in the way Garth and Luke can.
Most of Garth’s encore consisted of just him and his guitar. He took song requests from the signs his more-seasoned fans knew to bring, and he made a request of his own by deciding to cover “Piano Man.” This, I think, is the mark of a legend. The ability to rely exclusively on your discography and yourself to pull off entertaining a stadium of people. Combs hasn’t had the time to get there yet, but even Brooks himself thinks that he eventually will. After winning his latest Entertainer of the Year Award in 2019, Garth predicted that Luke would grow to become Entertainer of the Year eight times — breaking another one of Garth’s records.