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Garth Brooks roamed the stage with ferocity and grace Wednesday night in Marine Midland Arena, but his thoughts were back home in Oklahoma with his mother. Colleen Brooks left the UCLA medical center Tuesday after cancer surgery. Brooks was with her before the operation and when she came home.

"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," Brooks said before Wednesday's concert that drew 18,500 fans, the first sellout of a six-night stand. Part of the concert was televised nationally by CBS during the Country Music Awards. "My mom's a singer and the doctors told her they might have to remove her voice box because of the cancer. We were devastated."

That was two weeks ago but, fortunately, doctors were able to fight the disease without removing the voice box, and Brooks was genuinely moved talking about it.

"That's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me. Just being with my mom and holding her hand when she came home, nothing will ever top that for me. I'm so proud of her. She's a small woman (5-foot-3, 100 pounds) but she's such a fighter."

Garth is no slouch himself when it comes to attacking a concert crowd.

"This is our first time back in Buffalo in four years, and we're still here to do two things -- raise some hell and have some fun," he told the packed house, which started standing and screaming when Brooks appeared on stage.

The show began like a scene straight out of "Star Trek." At the witching hour of 9 p.m., what looked like a silver metallic spaceship dropped from above the arena stage. The lights went dark and there were weird, screeching sounds. Smoke filled the stage.

Then, a grand white piano arose from darkness beneath the stage as the lights were turned up to a blinding reflection. A cowboy in white tails was playing the piano but it wasn't Garth. Suddenly, up jumped Brooks from inside the piano.

Brooks raced around the stage wearing his extra-tight black jeans, black cowboy hat and light blue shirt. Then he picked up his guitar and was joined by his seven-piece band as they kicked up the country rock on "The Old Stuff."

Brooks drove the audience wild, and they responded with ear-shattering screams and cheers. The pace remained energetic as the singer went into another of his early songs, "Rodeo," with its spooky guitar licks and a touch of blues. A steel guitar and swaying country beat kept "Beaches of Cheyenne" moving.

The night was dominated by old songs from Brooks' first six albums. Brooks bellied up to the microphone like a guy who had one too many beers on the raucous, stomping "Papa Loved Mama."

All night long, throngs of fans made their way to the stage, bearing gifts of flowers, pictures, toys and other mementos for Brooks, who was named Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Awards Thursday night in Nashville, Tenn.

He hit his stride during the first hour with a couple of his standards. He turned up the heat on Billy Joel's "Shameless," giving the slow, grinding number a sexy blues quality. Then Brooks raced into a frenetic "Two of a Kind Workin' on a Full House," that turned the stage into a manic playground. Brooks later drove his fans into near delirium with one of his good old boy party anthems, "Friends in Low Places."

Brooks and his band raced from one side of the stage to the other, playing guitars, teasing the crowd, leading sing-alongs and just generally raising Cain.

The real high point, though, came about a half-hour into Brooks' set. Trisha Yearwood, looking and sounding effervescent appeared on stage for the duet that was telecast as part of the Country Music Awards, which awarded her Female Vocalist of the Year. "It's been a great night for Trisha, and as for me, I'm just glad to be in Buffalo," Brooks said.

The sellout crowd screamed with approval as Yearwood, wearing a red and black jacket and black slacks, slowly walked in from the side of the stage to sing an emotion-packed duet with Brooks on the song, "Where the Road Leads."

Brooks stood sideways, at center stage. He had his hands on his hips as Yearwood picked up a mike and started her soft, romantic number that builds to a booming climax. The two singers moved, step by step closer to each other.

Brooks held out his arms and sang gut-wrenching lyrics. Yearwood, who opened the concert with an stirring performance on an array of her hits, remained in a sultry pose, until finally the two of them met at center stage and turned and faced the audience. The people just kept standing and shouting as Brooks put his arm around Yearwood's shoulder for the song's finish. Then the two bowed to each other.

The lights came on, and the national TV cameras, which were mounted near the center of the arena about 40 rows back from center stage, turned on the fans. It was a glorious moment for music in Buffalo.

After that song, Brooks once again doffed his hat and applauded the crowd. There were more hard-rocking numbers and everyone seemed ready to dance as they sang along with an island, reggae beat to Brooks' "Two Pina Coladas."

Brooks, though, is at his best with his serious work. Songs like "The River" and his masterpiece, "The Dance" offer moments of reflection and introspection.

He ended with three rousing encores, including a rollicking version of "Ain't Going Down Until the Sun Comes Up." Brooks closed the night with a spectacular, heartfelt acoustic version of "American Pie."

Regardless of what he sings, Brooks has a way of reaching the people in the seats. "Every time I'm on stage, I look out in those lights and I can see their faces. I want to touch people, I want them to know they're special for what they've done for me."

It was an emotional night for Brooks. "This is the first of six nights and we wanted to make it special," he said. "It's like the first round of a boxing match. You've got to feel them out and give what you have."

Like his mother, Garth Brooks showed he's a real fighter who gave his fans in Buffalo everything he had.

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