Monday, December 3, 2018

Garth Brooks Live at Notre Dame Stadium (CBS-TV, aired December 2, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s main feature was a CBS-TV concert special featuring Garth Brooks playing live at Notre Dame stadium on the college campus in South Bend, Indiana — apparently the first time a musical event has ever taken place there. Brooks had promoted this show with an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show last week, an interesting interview (even though he just talked and was not featured as a musical guest as well, which was a bit disappointing) in which he said he originally wanted to be a professional athlete but he was so untalented in that regard the only sport he could play in college was javelin. Instead he discovered music when he would do amateur nights at nightclubs and found he was getting more popular and better liked, and realized he could have a career out of this so he could make a living without working a normal job. Garth Brooks erupted on the country-music world in 1991 and for the next three years, recording for what was left of the old Liberty Records label, he zoomed to the top of the country charts and each new record was an automatic #1. Then he derailed his own career with an album called The Chase, whose featured single was a song called “We Shall Be Free” — which included such intimidating lines as, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” Brooks’ core audience read that line correctly as a plea for acceptance of homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular, and though he didn’t take as abrupt a tumble down the country charts as the Dixie Chicks did when they said publicly at a concert in London that they were embarrassed to be from the same state as George W. Bush, it did hurt him commercially.

Brooks made a number of interesting career moves, including recording an album and doing a TV show under the alternate persona of “Chris Gaines” — an androgynous rocker along the lines of Bowie and Prince — and then, like John Lennon in the late 1970’s, he dropped out altogether and spent the next 16 years not releasing any new material and performing only rarely so he could concentrate on raising his kids. (He had his kids with his first wife, Sandy Mahl, whom he married in 1986 and divorced in 2001. In 2005 he married country singer Trisha Yearwood, a star in her own right, and they’re still together — literally, because she was with him on stage at Notre Dame as one of his backup singers.) In 2014 Brooks triumphantly returned to the stage in a giant tour which was billed as, “Featuring Special Guest Star Trisha Yearwood,” which inevitably led me to joke, “He must have worked really hard to get her to be his opening act.” (Actually, it seems possible to me that Yearwood told him, “Darling, you’ve been out of circulation for 16 years while I’ve been working regularly — maybe you should be opening for me!”) According to the narration on last night’s telecast as well as Brooks’ Wikipedia page, he’s now the best-selling solo recording artist of all time (having broken the mark set by the previous record-holder, Elvis Presley, which seems to me hard to believe), and the concert was less a presentation of Brooks’ music than a celebration of his repertoire and its importance in his fans’ lives. Brooks played 16 songs during the show, including some oddball covers — Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and a medley of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” prefaced and ended by a snatch of a song with the tag line, “Sometimes You Have to Die to Live Again”) — and during many of his own songs his audience was singing along (which sometimes made it hard for someone like me who likes Garth Brooks but is not especially familiar with his oeuvre to figure out just what the lyrics were — also there was an odd echo on Brooks’ vocal mike which pushed him towards unintelligibility even when he was singing sans audience participation).

Brooks’ Wikipedia page says, “His integration of rock and roll elements into the country genre has earned him immense popularity in the United States,” though Brooks hasn’t gone as far into the rock sound as a lot of other modern “country” singers who have followed in his wake. I’ve commented on previous country music awards shows that much of modern “country” actually sounds more like the sub-genre that emerged in the 1970’s from groups like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and which then was called “Southern rock” than anything by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. At least Brooks has retained violin and pedal steel guitar in his band — most of the modern-day Southern rockers who call themselves “country” have eschewed these once-paradigmatic country instruments — and his music overall is an appealing mixture of country and rock elements, while most of his lyrics are pure country. Though he avoids the bathos endemic to the country-pop style of the 1950’s and 1960’s (which led to the joke, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, your job back, your car back and your wife back, and you sober up” — to which Charles added, “Yeah, and your mother and your dog come back to life”), his songs still fit the basic country lyric pattern of drinking, necking on deserted roads, and partying until the sun comes up. I was disappointed that of my three favorite Garth Brooks songs — “We Shall Be Free,” “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” and “Friends in Low Places” — he sang only the last of those on last night’s telecast (and judging not only from the reaction it got but from the number of people in the crowd who held signs with the words “Friends in Low Places,” it appears to be Garth Brooks’ “Satisfaction”), but overall I enjoyed the show. I was amused that Trisha Yearwood was on stage throughout as one of Brooks’ backup singers — she was in the middle of a row that included a dreadlocked Black guy (who supplied the scream that joins the two parts of “Hey Jude” because Brooks couldn’t do that as Paul McCartney did on the Beatles’ original) on one side and a tall, striking-looking biker chick who seemed to have just stepped out of a 1960’s Russ Meyer movie on the other — the tall, striking-looking biker chick seemed to have a particularly strong voice and I’d like to hear her do an album sometime!