First Published September 2022
A HERO’S HOMECOMING
How do you describe what it feels like to finally experience something you’ve waited twenty-five years for? How do you put into words everything about THAT very moment, when the shadow of 2014 was also – at last – cast forever into the furthest reaches of 80,000 hearts?
The hero’s homecoming – for THIS IS what last Friday and this past weekend undeniably was for GARTH BROOKS – illuminated the Dublin night in every possible way. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, spiritually.
It was, as we always knew it would be, an evening where love flowed in waves from the stage to all four corners of Croke Park, and all the way back down again to the man in the spotlight, the man in the stetson. The man who – for so many fans of country music here in Ireland, as in America and around the world – is THE MAN.
So what did it feel like?
Well, he came to sing the songs he knows we love, and we came to sing them with him. He told us he loved us, and we told him we loved him back, and then some. And neither party was just saying any of it for the sake of it. The emotion, the joy, the happiness that was released inside Croke Park was as sincere as it was electric.
But I have to be honest. As I sat alongside my brother in the high heavens of the upper Hogan stand, gazing down in wonder at the scene below, as that great sporting mecca began to fill before Friday night’s opening show, and when eventually – half an hour later than planned (but hey, what’s thirty minutes more between friends?) – we would finally hear his voice soar out across an Irish night again, I wasn’t thinking about how I felt.
Somewhere down below us, still out of sight, the greatest performer of our time, a man who – as far as I’m concerned – has no equal, waited.
For him, what would at once be a moment of redemption, of defiance, of satisfaction most certainly, and surely a little relief too, drew ever closer, and was soon to be embraced.And somewhere – mostly out of sight to all of us too – was the Aiken Promotions team who, in lockstep with the man himself, never gave up on this dream, and now also waited for the moment that would become the final balm on the wounds of eight years previous.
As happy as I was to be there myself (and make no mistake about it, I was!), and as excited as I was for the experience that was about to envelop the next couple of hours for all of us, the truth is that more than anything, I was happy and excited for Garth. And for Aiken Promotions,too. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through all of their minds as the clock ticked down to showtime.
From working in the music business myself, I know how much work goes into putting on an event of any scale, with what sometimes feels like a neverending list of things you need to do and get right so that everything runs smoothly, not just on the night or day of an event itself, but for weeks, and sometimes months, beforehand.
But bringing Garth Brooks back to Ireland? Compared to anything I’ve ever experienced, that’s the equivalent of putting a man on the moon. But just like the moon-landings, where there’s a will – and a vision, and enough dreamers bound together by ties of trust and passion – a way will be found. And so it was.
As an artist – a role that for him, you must remember, encompasses that of a songwriter as well as an entertainer – and as a man, Garth Brooks is one of the people I most admire in this world. And that’s long been so. For me, my love of country music grew from first hearing him sing back in the late eighties and on into the nineties, and beyond. And what drew me in then, to Garth and to American country music in general, was the songs. From cuts like the now iconic Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old) or the perhaps lesser known Not Counting You, or I Know One from his 1989 debut, Garth Brooks, all the way to recordings like Where The Cross Don’t Burn or The Courage of Love on his Fun album of two years ago, it’s always been about the songs.
That’s what people who don’t ‘get’ the Garth Brooks phenomenon really don’t ‘get’. It’s not just about the cowboy hats or the line-dancing. It’s about the songs. Even those who can’t help but show up in some version of a stetson know the words to so many of his songs. And actually knowing the words to a song is, let’s face it, levels above just being aware of a song.
The army of cowboy-hat adorned heads that bobbed around Croke Park was an expression of harmless fun. But even so, wearing a cowboy hat is not a prerequisite for being a fan of either Garth or country music, even if the lazy – and far too ‘oft used – characterisation of things is that one equals the other. Not so. Same with dancing. Country music and dancing are not one and the same thing.
An unfortunate side-effect of the cowboy hat, though, is that they do – whether anyone cares to admit it or not – take the spotlight away from the songs, especially when it comes to those who see Garth Brooks as merely a ‘culchie’ peculiarity. When all you focus on is what’s around the edges of something, it’s inevitable that you will miss what’s at its core.
And with Brooks, from day-one in his career, what’s been at the core of everything he does, is the music. The songs.
The fact that he has a degree in advertising is often fired into any conversation about him as if it was proof that something more nefarious than the music itself is the first and foremost reason for his phenomenal success over the last thirty-plus years. But the people who consider his background in advertising to be something he deployed or deploys like a magic potion to win fans over throughout his career, they forget a very simple fact: EVERY single record label out there, of any size, be they big or small, independent or otherwise, have people on their team whose very job is to market and advertise artists and their music. And marketing and advertising happens in every other business out there too. With Brooks, he just happened to have that extra skill-set in his locker, one that complimented his career as a recording and performing artist. Music is a business, too. People forget this.
So when some people act like they have him ‘sussed’ and ‘figured out’, what they’re really admitting about themselves is that they’ll hold it against a man if he can do more than his own main job well. And anyway, everything to do with being ‘Garth Brooks’ is his business, it’s that simple.
And no number of degrees in advertising, marketing, or anything else would matter a damn if the songs were bad. Or, if the songs were still great but he was a lousy or half-hearted performer. The emergence of Garth Brooks as an artist who is now unrivalled in country music history has been a convergence of so many factors. But at the heart of it all, in the beginning and through it all, have been Brooks himself and his songs. Today, at sixty years of age, it remains as true as ever, and perhaps even more so than ever before, that the songs mean everything to Brooks.
Little wonder that on several occasions over the first three shows of this historic five-night run, he made a point of thanking the audience for how they’ve loved his music for so many years, and for coming back to hear these songs again, twenty-five years on from his last Croke Park concerts.
When he came to Croke Park for the first time in 1997, I was there, with my brother then too, just a few days after my twenty-first birthday. A lifetime ago. And ever since that night, I’ve never hesitated in describing it as one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring nights of my life. The highlights then were the moments when Garth performed hits like Unanswered Prayers and If Tomorrow Never Comes, just him and his guitar.
Then, as with his shows this past weekend, the audience pretty much sang those songs for him, with the whole stadium, it seemed, knowing every single word. And as in ’97, he was clearly and visibly humbled, thrilled, and somewhat awestruck himself, I think, that those songs from way back when still meant so much to so many.
And the ‘so many’ is important here, because the audience at these three concerts that have taken place so far, and I’m sure it will be the same at next weekend’s shows, has ranged in age from those in their teens to those in every decade of life from their twenties to their seventies.
So these shows are not simply a reunion of sorts for anyone still around from 1997, far from it. In the twenty-five years since his last visit, his fanbase here has continued to grow, something which is quite extraordinary.
When Garth was originally scheduled to return to Ireland in 2014, I was working in TRAX in Tullamore, which at that time was a Ticketmaster outlet. I remember too well the stress of those on-sale mornings. With hundreds of people queuing overnight, some from the previous afternoon, the pressure to make sure everybody got the tickets they needed was intense and immense. But equally so, the happiness shared by everyone when they got their tickets was infectious and rewarding.
And what a sense of relief we felt too, Joan and I, when those on-sales were over…
Little did we know, of course!
Without going back over or into everything or much of what happened around those 2014 shows, there is one issue that has to be addressed again, as it has been bandied about with such ill-informed carelessness by many since this run of concerts sold-out.
The notion that greed on his part had anything to do with Brooks deciding not to play any of the 2014 shows when he learned that all five could not go ahead is simply absurd. When you hear someone throw out that particularly pathetic little comment of last resort – often as their first declaration on the matter – you can rest assured that they have absolutely nothing of substance to bring to any conversation on the subject because, in passing that ridiculous remark they’ve announced proudly and in one fell swoop that they know precisely nothing about Garth Brooks.
Save your breath, save your time, walk away from those people and leave them be.
Such has been the phenomenal success of his career, the man could probably have retired permanently back twenty odd years ago, with no need to ever play another show anywhere, or release new music ever again, if that had been his choice. It’s that simple. Garth Brooks is not, nor has he ever been, a man or an artist who goes looking to make a ‘quick buck’.
Nor, for that matter, had it anything to do with greed of any kind from Aiken Promotions, just to make that very clear too. Both Brooks and Aiken are more than experienced enough and professional enough to know exactly what’s needed when it comes to putting on any event, a one-off, or a run of nights. They simply wouldn’t have put tickets on sale for extra dates if they hadn’t received assurances at some point – from someone somewhere – that all would be well in doing so. That’s just not how either man works.
From start to finish on both Friday and Sunday when we were there, and from what I’ve heard from friends who made their way to Drumcondra on Saturday, Brooks’ legendary sense of showmanship was firing on all cylinders for every second he was on stage. And indeed, that very sense of showmanship is something else that’s often levelled against the Oklahoman, like it was some kind of crime to have mastered the art of entertainment, as if, because he can do it so well that it can’t possibly be sincere each time.
Again, like so much that is often spoken about Garth Brooks by people who feel that they must share their opinion simply because they have one, this is sheer nonsense. And it also proves yet again that so many people just don’t understand the emotional power of music and how it can affect, not just those listening to it, but those playing it too.
When you see Garth Brooks ‘live’, you see for yourself the passion that goes into his performance. It’s something that can’t be faked. You see, and you hear, and you feel how the audience feeds off his energy, and in turn, how he – and his band too, it must be said – feeds off what the audience gives back in return.
And when you’ve experienced a Garth Brooks show, you’ve enjoyed the experience of a lifetime. The only man with a hope in hell of ever topping it, is the man himself.
Because there’s only one Garth Brooks. And when it comes to country music, Garth is king. The Man! And a hero to many.
This weekend, a hero came home. And the show he brought with him is a triumph in every possible way.
~ GARTH BROOKS – The Stadium Tour, returns to Croke Park for its final two shows on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16th, and SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 17th.