Dispatches from the Front - Garth Brooks
“Last time out we sent King to Nickelback thinking that it would test him. It didn’t, so this time we are sending him to see Garth Brooks. Now King has been to hundreds of concerts but only to a couple of country shows. He is more of a hard rocker so this should be interesting.”
They want me to report on what? Garth Brooks? Okay? The last time I saw a country show was Alabama in the ‘80’s because my girlfriend wanted to see them. Garth Brooks was big in the 90’s and then stepped away from music for a while to concentrate on his family. He has only recently returned to recording and touring. He put out an album called Gunslinger about a year ago and has been touring for about 3 years (!) now. According to Wikipedia he has broken the record for the most shows in one tour. People seem to like him so I figured I would see how I reacted to his show. Now I generally like my music rockier and harder than country music so I was somewhat skeptical of how I would react to Garth Brooks. I will admit I have a pre-conceived opinion of country music, I did watch Hee-Haw growing up. But I had noticed on awards shows that modern country bands sure seemed to be emulating rock shows a lot, so who knows what I will see.
The first thing I was aware of was that the show sold out in an hour and a half, and that they were playing 7 sold out shows at the same arena. I don’t think U2 could have done that, or Paul McCartney for that matter. Gaga? Jay-Z? Time away hasn’t slowed down demand for Garth Brooks. When I pulled up to the arena and parked (I always come an hour early) there were thousands of people milling around, waiting for the doors to open. It reminded me of the festival atmosphere back in the seventies. Everyone was friendly, joking around, telling each other how far they had come to see the show, how many times they had seen him, how long it had been since they saw him. It was nice. Once I got inside and found my seat I was amazed that Power Chord had gotten me a 4th row stage right seat. Nice, things are looking up, much better seat than last time at Nickelback. The next thing I notice is that there aren’t as many cowboy hats as I thought there would be. I was expecting everyone to look like they were competing in a rodeo. Man, was I wrong. Lots of baseball caps but they looked like any other audience, maybe a little older but hey, the man retired for 13 years. My take was that they were old fans who came out to see him, with a smattering of younger fans aware of his legacy. The third thing I noticed was that there was no security pit. You know, that barrier across the front of the stage with a dozen burly guys keeping people away from the stage. Nothing, chairs right up to the (pretty low) stage. I have seen hundreds of shows and can’t remember never seeing security in front of the stage. This is going to be different.
So as I wait for the show to start I look around at the crowd. Like I said, mostly over 35 but a good mix, and everybody is smiling, talking and seeming to be having a good time. I’m wondering what the show will be like, after all this tour has been going on for 3 years. Will the musicians be sleep-walking their performance, will Garth be weary? I’ve seen that before, sometimes the suits want to exploit a popular album and keep a band on the road too long. Sometimes bands implode from that. But then I think back to how they are playing 7 shows in a row here and I just don’t think the fans would put up with that kind of behavior. Anyway, enough of my yacking, the show is about to start.
Something I’ve noticed about country shows is that there are always a bunch of opening acts. Sometimes 3 or 4. This seems weird to me. I’m used to a headliner and a support act, last month I saw Scorpions and Megadeth opened for them. Any time there are a bunch of acts it seems like they don’t get much time and are quickly forgotten. Garth Brooks had a guy named Mitch Rossell open. One guy, one guitar. I have to say he wasn’t bad. As I was watching him I thought about Garth Brooks. I don’t know how he got his start but I bet it was something like this. It looked like he was paying it forward by giving this kid a break. But he did only play for about a half hour. He was pretty good in a country troubadour way, check him out if you get a chance.
Intermission is coming to an end and now I will see what all the fuss is about. The lights go down, the screens surrounding the stage go up and the crowd goes wild. The band come from under the stage, a stage that is dominated by a big, lit up sphere enclosing the drum set, which rose up and started spinning at one point. It could have been a KISS stage. This isn’t old school country, this looks like a rock show. And the band? They deliver. The crowd reminds me of what Beatlemania must have been like, loud, on their feet, singing along with every song. And Garth Brooks? Definitely a skilled entertainer, he definitely knows how to put on a good show. After 343 shows the set list is fine-tuned, the interplay with the audience is perfect, the band is tight, lights and video used to best effect. Nothing is out of place. And I still marvel that there was no security down front, nobody rushed the stage, no drama, just enthusiastic joy between performers and audience. It looked like everybody was having a good time and the place was packed. I haven’t been to a sold out show in quite a while so to see every seat filled was pretty cool.
All of the marketing said Garth Brooks wife Trisha Yearwood would be the opener so I thought it was odd when Mitch Rossell opened but figured that there had to be a reason for it. About halfway through the show she came out and did a set. That was unique. Crafty of Garth Brooks as well because it gave him a chance to rest a bit. Like I said, well-tuned. Throughout the whole show he kept thanking the crowd for their support and letting them know that the band was there for them, not the other way around. Tickets were a flat rate of $75 and t-shirts were in the $25 range. I haven’t seen a $25 t-shirt since about 1990 at a rock show but Garth Brooks seems to be working on the quantity of sales rather than maximizing each sale, a complaint I had on Black Sabbath’s farewell tour. Judging by the crush at the merch stands I don’t think they were hurting, and it was just the 4th of 7 shows! He played lots of old hits, even telling the crowd that when he goes to a show he wants to hear the old stuff, and appreciated it when the crowd sang along to his latest song, “Thank God for country radio” he exclaimed.
He did a duet set with Trisha Yearwood that the crowd liked a lot and then went off for the encore.
When he came back out he was all by himself, one guy, one guitar. He asked for requests, people held up signs. He then played a number of tracks seemingly at random from what the fans wanted to hear. Then the band came out and gave a rousing encore before the whole thing was over.
So, what was my impression? I have to say, one helluva band, one helluva show. Like I said at the beginning, I am not a fan of country music, generally, I find some of the themes overused (trucks, dogs, beer), but these guys gave this audience a good time, and at a decent price. There was a real sense of community between the performers and the audience. The show went on for over three hours but seemed half that time, there wasn’t a time when I wanted to go get a drink. It was entertaining, and isn’t that what we all want from our concert experiences? I may never become enough of a fan of country music to buy a cowboy hat or boots but if country shows are this entertaining I could see myself going to more of them. I realize that as I mature I can appreciate what people see in genres of music that I hadn’t appreciated before. I had a good time, saw a new band I hadn’t seen before and got just a little bit more perspective on what it is we like about music. Give Garth Brooks a try, or any other group you may not have thought to listen too. You might surprise yourself.