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Staples Center, Los Angeles
Friday, January 25


He's back, though it's said he'll soon return to "retirement." But Garth Brooks' first of five benefit performances Friday and Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles was a reminder that while he may have toppled Elvis as the best-selling solo artist of all time, he really made his rep onstage.

During the country music boom of the early '90s, Brooks brought arena rock dynamics to the genre, coupled with genuine heart to match his hyperactive, goofy exuberance. His concerts had more in common with Bruce Springsteen than with his country peers, as he strove to make a one-on-one connection. And he still does.

Brooks' Staples shows (two Friday and a Herculean feat of three Saturday) were benefits for the Southern California 2008 Fire Intervention Relief Effort to aid victims of last year's regional wildfires and also help the state's firefighting departments. All merchandising proceeds also went to the cause.

The first hour of Friday's early show aired live on CBS -- a concert telethon of sorts -- which further pumped up a very excited Brooks and equally manic and roaring full house, ready to sing along loudly with nearly every song.

He opened with the dark and moody yet explosive "The Thunder Rolls" then upshifted in the jaunty, Cajun-flavored "Callin' Baton Rouge." The numbers ranged from the honky-tonkin' "Two of a Kind" and his gospel-inflected anthem of equality "We Shall Be Free" to the questing ballad "The River." However his latest single "More Than a Memory" came off as more of a generic country power ballad.

The arena fans came before the TV audience, and he didn't slow down during most of the commercial breaks for the telecast; he kept playing.

Wife Tricia Yearwood joined Brooks for a duet of "In Another's Eyes," and he also brought out another guest, calling him a "rock god" (would it be Bob Seger, even Bruce?) ... from California (uh, David Lee Roth?). No, it was Huey Lewis (rock god?!), who blew harp and traded verses for what turned out to be a zippy though hardly deified delivery of Lewis' '80s hit "Workin' for a Livin'."

Brooks didn't even use the standard large video screens; the small four-sided in-house Staples unit above center court ran a video about a female firefighter who'd suffered severe burns and then was shown, fully recovered, sitting up front alongside some her fellow first responders. Later, when one of his acoustic guitars went out of tune, Brooks gave it to her.

There were no gimmicks, except for firefighters coming onstage in full gear to blast confetti into the audience during a rousing rendition of "Friends in Low Places," complete with the "legendary" kiss-my-ass final verse, which closed on the televised portion of the night.

Once the cameras stopped rolling, the concert continued for another hour, including the rowdy ripper "Fever" and no-regrets reflection of "The Dance."

But the pacing seemed off, and the most intimate, richest moments actually came during the end of a half-hour encore. Alone on acoustic guitar, band members only chiming in a bit with harmony or fiddle, Brooks paid tribute to his inspirations: James Taylor, Billy Joel, Keith Whitley, George Strait, Seger and finally Don McLean, playing "American Pie" as a campfire sing-along with the entire arena.

Brooks' philanthropy also was at work just across the street in the plaza of the Nokia Theatre, where a Susan G. Komen Foundation booth sold special "pink editions" of his CD/DVD three-disc set "Ultimate Hits," with $10 of every purchase going directly to the efforts to find a cure for breast cancer.

Brooks may be "retired," but he remains ready to step up do more than his part. And, as he admitted, he can't resist that chance to perform again. Once his eldest turns 18, there's little doubt he'll be back again, full on.

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