Country fried

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One thing about country concerts: Tall boots are great for smuggling in liquor. And the empty pint bottles of Jack Daniels that littered section 231 of the Orlando Arena after the first of five sold-out Garth Brooks concerts last week suggested a lot of smuggled liquor.

One thing about Garth Brooks: The man knows his audience. That was made clear on the second night when, during "Friends in Low Places," the ultimate Garth party song about a gal who thinks she's too good for her guy, a tune whose sing-along chorus practically demands a raised beer, an anthem that Garth amended with a closing verse that ends "You can kiss my ass" but which he and his adoring masses draw out in a roof-rattling "kiss MY AAAAAAASSSSS!!!!!" ... as Garth paused before launching into that verse, he spoke knowingly to his throng by announcing, "You people that know the words, sing 'em good and loud. You people that don't know the words, just keep on drinkin'."

Like they needed encouragement.

One did not have to catch the all-Garth, all-the-time broadcasts on K-92, the country radio station that dominates Central Florida's airwaves, to be brushed by the Garth stampede. An arena-setting record of 81,000 tickets sold out in hours. Garth's press conference kicking off the five shows made every TV news show that night and the Sentinel's front-page the next morning. The paper's page-two gossip column carried a "Garth Watch" logo and followed Garth and family like a stalker.

I'm a genuine fan. I discovered Garth while fleeing classic-rock radio, which replayed the soundtrack of my youth with such repetition that I escaped to country music. But Garth was hardly "Hee-Haw." You could hear in his sound a honky-tonk heartbeat, but here was rock & roll energy fused with smart and literate lyrics. He hooked me. I scooped up his first four albums, his first Christmas recording, his first greatest-hits collection.

Yet I'm not the fan I used to be. The last time he was in town we had a falling out -- something, I'm sure, for which we both deserve blame.

Performing his first series of Orlando Arena concerts in 1993, he was awesome -- to a point. But there were so many skipped lyrics as Garth bent down to accept proffered gifts, so much hero worship -- there's no other way to put it -- encouraged by the hero, that I was put off. I don't demand humility; performers work hard to reach their peak, and Garth's fealty to his fans is genuine. But his whole "who, me?" response -- and this went on all night -- undermined my belief.

And then the best-selling country artist of all time did the unforgivable: He performed a cover tune as an encore."Grand Funk?" the confused stranger to my left and I mouthed at each other as Garth charged into "We're An American Band." I decided on the spot I could skip his future concerts and lavish my affection on his recordings.

Still, I'm a forgiving guy. And his return offered a chance to reopen a window on the phenomenon. Had he changed his act? Would he? Spontaneity near the tail end of a three-year world tour comes at a premium. Could his appeal hold up night after night after night after night after night?

And so I ducked back inside the tent. Through five concerts I stood and I watched and I listened. Here is what I took home:

Wednesday, Oct. 21; 23 songs; two hours, 14 minutes: One reviews the start of Garth's multiconcert stand at one's peril. This show suggests he's abandoned his arena-rock pretensions -- the smashing guitars, the rope swing over the fans -- for a stripped-down evening whose many acoustic moments reflect a welcome return to the spare sound of his first recordings, before studio sing-alongs and crowd cheers cluttered the cuts.

That observation would prove wrong.

In the preconcert news conference, Garth confessed to his 1970s musical influences -- James Taylor, the Eagles, "stuff that would be considered country today." But the stage presence that has transformed country music owes to the pop-rock theatrics of Styx, Kiss and Queen. From Freddie Mercury, who the Oklahoma teen watched from a seat in the 13th row (he still has the tickets), Garth said he learned vulnerability. "If you're among your people, you've got to trust your people," he said. "So just show 'em -- show 'em what's inside."

But first, his example illustrates, blow 'em away. Stealing from the best glam rockers, he opens each night with a three-and-a-half minute light show that conjures a spaceship ascension underscored by the deafening sound of grinding metal. When it stops, the grinding is replaced by simple chords from a keyboard as a grand piano, its player's identity shrouded, rises at the rear of a stage that is open to all sides. Then, just as slowly, Garth rises from inside the piano.

Signs in the stands are not plentiful, but they are permissible. Because Garth feeds off them, arena security has relaxed a ban imposed after banners at the Hanson show a few weeks earlier blocked views. Perhaps there are not enough signs; later in the week Garth's staff will plant them in the audience, mostly to spark banter in Garth's rehearsed intros of his band.

Then again, a Garth Brooks concert is not the place for anyone who complains about obstructed views. Here the obstruction usually is the person in front of them. And then there are the cowboy hats.

A four-song acoustic encore ends the show. The finale is "American Pie" -- the same song Garth performed with Don McLean to close out the live broadcast of his Central Park concert last year. Imagine my glee.

Thursday, Oct. 22; 22 songs; two hours, four minutes: I bet Garth's lousy in bed. For all his stage presence, the guy is a classic mood breaker. He simply refuses to sustain momentum. Every song begins and ends with patter, halting the frenzy in midyelp. But his showmanship shines through; even when alone on the vast stage, he knows the crowd is his, and it willingly surrenders.

"I think concerts are for the stuff that hopefully you know and can sing along," he says in introducing a changeup from the previous night, an acoustic solo of "To Make You Feel My Love" from the soundtrack of the movie "Hope Floats," which he will play again the next three nights.

The audience takes its cue, though Garth meant it as an apology for trying to slip in a new song. No matter; everyone knows the words anyway, allowing the artist to act out his I'm-not-worthy routine. But it flies. And when, after this and any one of several other sing-alongs, Garth slips his black hat under his arm and applauds the crowd, the mutual affection is tangible. "I don't know about you," he'll say another night, "but the coolest thing you can do for a guy like me is to sing this stuff right back." Ask and you shall receive.

In these moments Garth is a quiet troubadour, with an exceptional ability and softness that makes it seem like he's singing with the crowd rather than the other way around. A slight change in inflection, however, and the arena is transformed with drunken revelry akin to a dueling-pianos bar just before closing time. The smashing guitars are indeed absent. But tonight, confetti and streamers launched from the floor will rain down during "Friends in Low Places"; the high-energy first encore, "Ain't Goin' Down (Till the Sun Comes Up)" finds Garth climbing a hanging ladder to an insurance-defying height. Then he leaps atop an enclosed drum cage that spins and rises on a cushion of flashing lights. The showman is in top form.

"Someone in section 215 will win Garth Brooks' complete CD library!" says the flier advising listeners to tune in K-92's morning show the next day. What they can't know in advance, and won't until it's too late for some, is that someone in section 215 stands a better chance of being hit with projectile vomit before Garth closes, this night with a solo "Piano Man," sans piano. It's Thursday night pushing toward Friday, and the fever is building.

Friday, Oct. 23; 25 songs; two hours, 23 minutes: "For those of you who don't know our show," Garth tells the assembled ushers before the doors open, "Friday night we designate as throw your chair night."

The chairs don't fly but the people do, one after another down the steep arena stairs, proof that footwear designed for boot-scootin' is not made for concrete climbin.' The early jump on weekend binge drinking doesn't help. Still, I am assured, this is a controlled country crowd; when Hank Williams Jr. performs, the pot starts getting passed around early and punches get thrown.

On stage, Garth and opening act Trisha Yearwood perform the duet "In Another's Eyes" but replace their second, "Walk Away Joe," with the newer "Where Your Road Leads." Early on he issues the audience a dare: "Let's just push one another till one of us falls flat on our face." But this night the audience -- whose attire proves the manufacturer made waaaay too many shirts sporting the Confederate stars and bars -- will outlast him.

And the encore jeez. He throws in not only "Piano Man" from the night before, and "American Pie" from the night before that, but also McLean's "American Pie" followup, "Vincent." Like you needed to hear that in concert.

Saturday, Oct. 24; 19 songs; one hour, 48 minutes: No one will say how long Mrs. Garth Brooks was in town before or after this show, but there she was sitting briefly in the VIP seats off stage right, and Garth clearly had some place he wanted to be other than the arena. The result was the swiftest show of the week, with just two encores: "Ain't Goin' Down" and "Friends in Low Places," the only time in five nights that Garth Brooks ends a Garth Brooks concert with a Garth Brooks song.

But Sandy Brooks' influence may be apparent elsewhere as well.

Garth enjoys a rep as an advocate for the little guy. He keeps his tickets affordable -- every seat here sold for $20 -- so families can get in. (It's also true that, as a marketing major, he knows he'll bump up the more profitable sales of music and merchandise while curbing travel costs with multiple-night stands. But that's not the point.) A little-known fact: He holds onto the tickets for the first two rows, mostly so scalpers can't get them but also so his people can give them away to those sitting in less desirable seats at showtime. The result is a rock star perk, as pretty girls are cherry picked from the stands to rush up front and grab at their boy's ankles. On every night but tonight, that means the front row resembles tryout day at high-school cheerleader camp.

Funny thing. With Sandy at the show, those rows tonight are filled with couples.

Sunday, Oct. 25; 30 songs; two hours, 42 minutes: So much for wearing down. Garth can't be dynamited off the stage tonight.

He reinserts the Billy Joel cover "Shameless" -- the one remake he truly made his own -- that was dropped after the first night. And for the first time he performs not two but three duets with Trisha. Someone has hurled early at the base of the condiment stand behind section 119, but overall the crowd is happy drunk, having consumed just enough to get lightheaded but not enough to make rising on Monday morning impossible. To my knowledge, the cops never found the guys who lit a joint when "Friends in Low Places" came around.

Garth may have made believers, and he sent people out the door who couldn't wait to tell Saturday's ticket holders what they missed. But I got what I expected: Garth plus.

His energy didn't disappoint. His charisma spilled over. But too often he still came across as the hired talent in the hotel lounge, singing for his own benefit because nobody else is paying any attention. Yet people were paying attention. So what did he do with 17,000 people hanging on his every note?

For this night's encores, he did this:

He sang Bob Seeger's "Night Moves."

He sang Cat Stevens' "Wild World."

He sang -- get this -- Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson."

After that, the cover of "American Pie" seemed like an old friend.

At least the cheerleaders were back in the front row.

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