- 11 Jul 14
Well, he may not own all of it yet but at his current rate of progress it can't be too long before Garth Brooks is officially acknowledged as Master Of The Universe. In Dublin for a low-key 8-night stint at The Point, the titfered titan's appeal, audience and trust in the Almighty are examined by our man in the snazzy stetson, Liam Fay.
Once upon a time, John Lennon caused pandemonium by boasting that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. But that was back in the old days when Jesus Christ was somebody. Today, the fab four would be up against much more formidable competition in the fame game, from the likes of, say, the Dalai Lama or Beavis and Butthead.
Garth Brooks, however, is in a different league altogether. Already a superstar, he came to Ireland last week and became a superstar. He was canonised, lionised and officially registered as a national hero. He became so famous, in fact, that Albert Reynolds almost managed to pronounce his name correctly (he called him Gareth which for An Taoiseach, let's face it, wasn't bad).
Anyone who heard the screams of the crowd – Gaaaaaaarth! - when he walked onstage at The Point or felt the waves of thunderous appreciation that smashed the walls after every song will be in no doubt about the intensity with which he is revered here. “With the reaction I've gotten in this country,” said Brooks himself at one point, “I feel that, at last, I've arrived.”
He has, and, like it or not, his presence is going to be felt around here for a very long time. In a curious way that cannot be measured only in conventional terms such as chart success or popularity poll ratings. Garth Brooks has insinuated himself into a certain elusive corner of the Irish psyche. Call it the Hotel California suite. As Garth Brooks will no doubt soon discover, he may check out but he can never leave.
If you wanted to shoot a low-budget movie entitled Invasion Of The Little Black Spaceship then this would be the time and place to do it. It's the opening night of Garth Brooks' record-breaking eight-date stint at The Point and black cowboy hats are definitely in vogue. Inconveniently, however, there's a strong gust blowing and hats are being whipped off heads right, left and centre with the result that every couple of minutes yet another strange, dark UFO seems to hover against the skyline for an instant before it darts off into the wide blue yonder.
“Ah Jaysus, me hat,” shouts one young woman as she tears across The Point carpark in pursuit of an airborne Stetson. “Me little brother will fuckin' kill me if I lose it.”
Indeed, headgear is one of the few things that most of the people in the audience seem to have in common. Nearly everyone is sporting something from the hat family, albeit in many cases only a distant relation. Straw hats, sun hats, plastic hats, felt hats, baseball caps, sombreros, boaters, they're all here but, this being an, ahem, uniquely Irish gathering, so too are knotted handkerchiefs, anorak hoods and Doc Martens.
I accept that this last item may appear a little unorthodox but the chap who was walking around with the actual boot on his head, its laces tied in a neat bow beneath his chin, did seem perfectly happy. And, as Garth himself so often reminds us, it's being true to the real you inside that's important.
Beyond a shared love of the stylish chapeau, however, this audience makes for a very broad church. Here, rubbing shoulders with each other are grandparents, teenyboppers, family groups, cooing couples, country 'n' western junkies, teddy boys, crusty girls and a variety of others of indeterminate category. I even counted a total of seven leather jackets. That's more than you see at most rock gigs these days.
There's a curiously homemade feel to many of the outfits and costumes on display this evening. Garth Brooks' merchandising may be a multi-million dollar business but it's as if the Irish fans prefer to wear their colours with a more personal touch. Emma, Sinead, Rachel and Michelle are four thirty-something women from Sligo. The weekend before this gig, all four of them stitched the name GARTH BROOKS in red wool and sequins across the backs of their four denim jackets. Emma's got GAR, Rachel the TH, Sinead the BRO and Michelle is left with the OOKS. The plan is that they will stay in formation all night by linking arms throughout the concert.
“We love Garth,” says Sinead in an effort to explain their desecration of four perfectly good denim jackets. “He's got a lovely way about him, a lovely manner. His songs tell stories. They're about real life.”
“He's cute,” adds Rachel. “He's got a fat bum but he's cute.”
In search of a male perspective, I see a chap in a huge brown hat standing alone by the main entrance. As I get closer, however, I notice that, for reasons best known to himself, he is wielding a very large bullwhip. For some reason, I suddenly decide that maybe this vox-popping lark isn't such a good idea after all.
A little over an hour before he goes on stage for the opening night of his Point run, Garth Brooks has a face to face meeting with An Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. They greet each other fulsomely in a cluttered hallspace outside of the star dressing room while photographers record the historic event.
Albert welcomes Garth on behalf of the Irish people. Garth says that he is glad to be here. Garth admits that he is nervous because he once met George Bush and fumbled the hand-shake by offering an award he had just won instead of his hand.
“Mr. Bush just kinda looked at it, as if to say 'what the hell do I do with this',” recalls Garth. “But he was very nice about it and he gave me a second chance so I got to greet him properly. It is understood that, for his part, Albert Reynolds is not especially nervous about this particular aspect of the encounter. He is believed to have shaken hands with people several times in the past, and to have developed considerable acumen at the skill.
When the photographers leave, Garth Brooks and Albert Reynolds have a private summit at Garth's request. This ends at approximately 8.15pm on Wednesday, March 30th. Within twelve hours, the Provisional IRA announce a three day ceasefire.
“I sometimes catch my own self laughing,” says Garth Brooks at the press conference in answer to the inevitable question about just what it is that makes him so singularly popular. “Why me? If God came down and said in this box is the reason, I often wonder what I’d like to be there. I’d like to see the music, that would be nice. But I dunno, I just keep guessing. If it ended tonight, I couldn’t complain. I’ve been very fortunate. Life’s been good to me. Right now, I figure that it’s like getting away without paying your taxes. Pretty soon, someone’s gonna catch on and I’m gonna be found out.”
That’s one of the most irritating things about Garth Brooks. He’s just so goddamned self-deprecating. He defers to everybody. If you ask him a question, he calls you sir, thanks you for the perceptiveness of your query, apologises for not having come prepared with an intelligent and thoughtful response and then hands you a great platitude wrapped in a large ribbon of excessive country.
But then, of course, Brooks has always used his head as more than just a hat-rack. Flattery gets him everywhere with most journalists and it doesn’t take him long to have them eating out of his hand and interrogating him on such contentious issues as how difficult it must be to combine a successful career with a family life.
This God stuff comes in very handy as well. If in doubt, mention the great big Willie Nelson lookalike in the sky and, presto, you’re off the hook. Garth is forever telling us that his talent is purely a gift from the heavenly father and that it is therefore his Christian duty to bring his music to as many people as possible. “God never put any limit on how many units I could sell or how many countries I could play in so why should I?,” he says. “I’m just here to do God’s will and where he leads, I’ll follow.”
This little but of hokie hokum conveniently neglects to mention the fact that Brooks commands one of the sharpest and most calculating music business operations known to mammon. You don’t get to be worth an estimated £400 million (that’s pounds, not dollars) and to sell 32 million albums by simply entrusting your affairs to divine intervention.
With the sensational Irish triumph, Garth Brooks Ltd. was laying the foundation for an empire that it eventually hopes will girdle the globe. Journalists from all over Europe were flown in to witness the Dublin hysteria first hand and to spread the good word of the gospel according to Garth. Dreamchaser Productions recorded most of The Point shows for inclusion in an on-the-road documentary which will be used to market the Brooks concept in those territories to which a personal visit is impractical for the time being. And won’t close-ups of Garth being moved to tears by the reaction of the Irish audience look peachy keen on the TV screen.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Garth Brooks is doing anything especially cynical here. This kind of crafty grafting is par for the course for acts of this stature (it’s called taking care of business). What is peculiar to Brooks, however, is that he does it while staring his fans straight in the eye with his palms extended heavenward and a totally guile-free look on his face. But then that’s all part of the essential Garth concept.
Brooks is a huge star in the US. He outsells virtually everybody in terms of albums and concert seats, but he’s started to hit a glass ceiling over there. The belief is that he has peaked in America. Meanwhile, there’s a whole posse of others snapping at his heels. “No-one else in the country is doing the type of show that we’re doing,” he says with, perhaps, a tiny note of testiness. “We’re in an era where some artists are trying too hard to do what others are doing. Hopefully, this era will pass soon,” Well, it’s testy by Garth Brooks standards.
Anyway, the plan is now to establish him big-time in Western Europe, Australia and Eastern Europe before the slide in the States begins. When the current leg of the world tour ends on April 24th, there’s a four month break of the birth of his next child and some writing for the next album. Then, it’s Australia, parts of Asia, possibly Russia, back to continental Europe and, I’d reckon on more than one occasion along the way, Ireland again. It will be at least three years before there’s even a suggestion of another US tour.
And the sales plot in these diverse markets? The music, yes, but only up to a point. As his co-manager, Pamela Lewis, explains, the real international language here is Garth Brooks The Personality, the Universal nice guy.
“He is one of the few artists where you will see entire families coming to his shows,” insists Lewis. “He bridges the generation gap. Males like him because he’s the boy next door, the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with. Females like him because he’s non-threatening. He’s the kind of guy many girls feel they would like to marry.
Back at the press conference, one of those who had put in the greatest effort to catch every syllable uttered by Garth was the peerless Fr. Brian D’Arcy. Crouched down to the left of the podium, he managed to hold a huge microphone above his head throughout the forty minute proceedings and ask questions at the same time.
Later, after the conference, however, the popular cleric approaches a group of journalists who are drinking in Harry’s Bar and makes an extraordinary admission. “I think I’ve spent more time on my knees in front of Garth Brooks than I have in front of God,” Fr. Brian says with a smirk.
Now, be honest. You don’t often get that sort of sexual – I mean religious – frankness from the clergy, do you?
Showtime! Having been stewing in the froth of their own anticipation for anything up to two hours (more in some cases), this audience is already at boiling point and the temperature is still rising. Gaaaaaaaarth!
For many, especially the older punters, this is their first time as a concert of this scale, so they’re a little trigger happy. They applaud anything that moves. They applaud when the lights go up or down. They applaud the No Smoking announcement. They even applaud when Albert Reynolds enters the auditorium.
There’s a curious atmosphere amongst this crowd. On one level, being here is about as close to being at home as you can get without somebody telling you to take out the garbage. Large family groups stand around in knots chatting and eating, matronly ladies don their reading glasses and peruse the programme, even the kids seem to be on their best behaviour. On another the level, however, you can almost smell the determination to, in Garth’s own words, raise some hell. The shrieking is getting louder, the chants are getting faster and the whistling more fierce. This is definitely an audience that is growing increasingly fond of its own voice.
A little after nine, the balloon goes up. To an artillery of drumrolling, Garth and his band ascend centre stage in an hydraulically-lifted cage. Then, it’s bam! straight into ‘Standing Outside The Fire’, a song which, Brooks proclaims, “expresses a lot about how I like to live my life.” The fans, already in a zoological mood don’t have that far to go to Completely Apeshit but they make the leap within a heartbeat. A Garth Brooks show starts at climax and then keeps trying to surpass itself.
Everything they say about this guy’s energy level is true. Darting from one side of the stage to the other, Garth hunches over his guitar as though it were a gun or a tool, his torso swivelling back and fro like it’s on ball bearings. He’s dressed in the regulation black cowboy hat, black and yellow shirt and tight black pants but, be careful, those things on his feet are not shoes.
“They’re lace-up loafers. They may not look like boots but they are definitely cowboy boots,” he had warned the press earlier. Garth hates it when people say he wears shoes when he performs.
Ten, maybe fifteen minutes into the show, you begin to see that he feels restricted by the shape of the Point stage. In the States, he almost always plays on a 360 degree proscenium and he likes the freedom to run around in circles all night. Forced to face forward for an entire show, however, he sometimes looks a little stilted, reluctant to move too fast in case he eats up too much space too quickly. Before the concert, he had also expressed disappointment about the use in this country of barricades to keep the crowd back from the stage, a precaution that is routinely taken at almost all major gigs on this side of the world.
“I prefer to just let the people come right up and rest on the stage,” he says. “I always used to love bands like Queen and Kiss. Kiss, to me, were one the great theatre bands and they’re a true influence on what we do. We like to play very close to the people and that’s something that always struck about the Queen and Kiss concerts that I’ve seen.”
He needn’t have worried. Garth Brooks’ Irish audience wasn’t going to be restrained by anythigns as flimsy as a rampart of steel. They swelled the pit between stage and fans with a torrent of sweat and sound that effortlessly swamped its banks. They also sent the security guards, who were patrolling the moat, home with a case of tinnitus that will ring on for months to come.
However, the power of this audience’s passion was matched by only one thing, and that was the depth of its uncritical response. We’ve already seen how adoration of Garth Brooks does not stem from his music alone but I was surprised to find that, in many instances, it bears virtually no relationship to the music whatsoever. Irrespective of how bland it is, the moment that a song ends, the fans triple the decibel level. Whenever Garth delivers one of his little homilies, the noise reaches eardrum freezing pitch.
For all the hoopla of his show (and by rock standards it’s very tame hoopla; we’ve all seen dramatic flashing lights a thousand times before and Meatloaf was using these kind of thunderous sound effects a decade ago at least) real highlights were rare indeed. Like everything else about Garth Brooks, his music is riddled with contradictions. One minute, with tongue-in-cheek, he’ll introduce one of his faster songs as “one of those predictable, lovesick, country weepies” but that doesn’t stop him from actually singing a predictable, lovesick, country weepy a minute later. Lyrically, the material veers between the rousing self-assertiveness of numbers like ‘We Shall Be Free’ and the bible-thumping self-defeatism of ‘Unanswered Prayers’, yet it’s all delivered with burning conviction by Brooks as though both strands fitted neatly together.
It is also surely no coincidence that two of the best-loved songs (‘The Thunder Rolls’ and ‘The River’) echo titles of Bruce Springsteen tracks but then what are we to make of the fact that he opens his tribute to the “good old days of guitar and vocal country” with a version of Elton John’s ‘Candle In The Wind’?
For me, the bottom line is that, despite what some might claim, Garth Brooks hasn’t grafted balls onto country music. He’s simply fitted it with a codpiece. It thrusts, it gyrates, it even looks like it holds balls, and quite impressive ones at that, but you’d find more real cojones in a eunuch’s jockstrap.
“Do I consider myself a crusader?” asks Garth Brooks. “I don't know. Did the first guy who ever saw somebody on fire and ran over to put it out feel he was a crusader?”
Good old Garth, as solid, dependable and down-to-earth as a can-opener or a favourite pair of slippers. And that's precisely the way most people seem to like him. Already, they're talking about his next visit to this country and it may not be all that far away. Certainly not if Garth Brooks himself has anything to do with it.
“When my wide and I had our first child, Taylor, I almost retired,” he says. “I didn't know how to split my energies. I've always been one way minded, one hundred miles an hour as fast as I can. And they always say that babies don't come with directions but ours did. She had 'Love Me' written all over her. I can do that and it doesn't take away anything from my music or my urge to entertain. It just brought the fire closer. It was a cool day when I found out God was trying to tell me I could do both.
“And now He's given me this chance to meet all these wonderful people in Ireland and get this wonderful reaction. All I've seen since I got here is an astonishing amount of politeness, an astonishing amount of good-natured people. Don't you people ever get upset? I certainly haven't seen it yet. It's like there are no enemies here. It's a real neat feeling.”
As the throng pours out of The Point, exhausted but exhilarated, I spot my four friends from Sligo trudging up the street in search of a taxi, their backs playing silent homage to that great superstar, GAROKS BROTH.