Pop: The best little cowshed in Belfast

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"THERE ARE very few places on earth that you know what you're going to get before you get there," said Garth Brooks at the press conference before the first of five sold-out nights at this 7,000-capacity cowshed on the edge of Belfast.

The city, as Dublin did last year, has bought a ticket for Brooks' country phenomenon in a big way. The two seem to have a mutual love. It is easy to see why Brooks does. "It's a good market to make money," he said, before adding: "great people who have a bad taste in music. Thank God".

Brooks also hedged his bets beforehand by comparing this first night to the first round of a boxing match. "You feel each other out. Find what works and what doesn't. The last night will be the best." His first move was to come on stage playing a power chord and then let his fiddler rip into the traditional opener of "Callin' Baton Rouge", with the cajun fiddle parts sounding more Irish than ever. He followed it up with "Two Of A Kind" and "Workin On A Full House", finishing it out of breath with the words: "on behalf of the band, the crew and especially myself, thank you for letting us come to this great city". It was a predictable double whammy but it worked perfectly.

For "If Tomorrow Never Comes", he laid down his guitar and wandered around the stage to milk the adulation. Hundreds, if not thousands, of lighters were lit, and throughout he was showered with gifts. The end was met with the now traditional Irish crowd greeting of "Ole, Ole, Ole".

Maybe he pushed too early. "The Thunder Rolls" sounded like something swept off Charlie Daniels' studio floor, and a couple of duets with support act Trisha Yearwood suggested that slick presentation took precedence over content.

But he finished with perhaps his strongest two songs - the bawdy "Friends In Low Places", and "The Dance", one of the best ballads to come out of Nashville this decade. Predictably, that "Ole, Ole, Ole" chant rose again. Brooks responded with an encore that concluded with a rowdy love-in on "American Pie".