COUNTRY / Tennessee millions

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The Independent Online
If you had dropped a bomb on the Birmingham NEC on Sunday night and Wembley Arena on Monday night, you could have obliterated two big bucket buildings and a lot of big bucket hats. How much of Garth Brooks's British fan base would have been accounted for is harder to assess.

Rumour has it that he can - and will - fill Wembley four times over, but his unit sales over here suggest otherwise. Whatever, judging by his reception it's safe to assume that the audience didn't contain too many curious passers-by who just popped in to see what all this Gareth Hooks thing is about anyway.

Apart from the Stetson, very little remains of the homeward-looking hootenanny that Brooks brought to the Cambridge Theatre in the West End in 1991. This time, the kind of sci-fi paraphernalia usually found in your average stratostar's rockfest cranked and dipped and flashed and howled as the band took the elevator up through the stage floor, delivering the most efficient machine for converting sentiment into greenbacks that Nashville has ever produced.

Of course, real Country music could never have achieved what Brooks's has. In the last three years he has delivered three albums that have progressively watered down his inheritance and removed the hick's hiccup from his well-honed baritone.

Nowadays, he owes as much to Billy Joel (whose 'Shameless' he has made his own) as to, say, Don Williams. The longer you listen, the clearer it becomes that the IOUs go in every direction. There are Springsteen- esque mementos in 'The River' and 'Thunder Rolls', snippets of Bluegrass, and muted echoes of Don McLean on the beautiful acoustic 'Unanswered Prayers'.

He opened with a bracing 'Standing Outside the Fire'. With all the wind and water that followed, the only element that failed to get a mention was earth, but then the sod under its tapping feet is implicit in just about any Country song you'd care to mention. In 'Two of a Kind', 'Rodeo', 'If Tomorrow Never Comes' and the encore, 'Ain't Going Down till the Sun Comes Up', you could practically hear the cowboy boots stomping and grinding the floorboards.

The major criticism of a performer once memorably described as a thumb in a hat is that he gives people what they want rather than what he wants to give them. Thus 'We Shall be Free', apparently endorsing sexual and social heterogeneity, finds itself in the same show as the intolerant, triumphalist 'American Honky-Tonk Bar Association'. Brooks once took classes in advertising, where he appears to have imbibed the lesson that quadruple platinum American singers have to be all things to all men, women and children.

That usually means anthems - with primary colours that disciples can sing along to. It's too easy to say that singing about the elements is elementary - how come nobody else can touch the hem of his garment? It's a brilliantly designed career, with a show to match. He could have sung the Nashville phone book and the roof would still have come off.

(Photograph omitted)

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