LOS ANGELES -– “A dream is like a river,” Garth Brooks sang in one of his early hits.
Thus, as he applies a coda to his career as a concert attraction, it is appropriate that Brooks should decide to do so near an ocean. Or, to be more precise, three oceans, since his triad of CBS television specials, Garth Brooks: Coast To Coast Live, take him to California, on the Pacific; Norfolk, Va., on the Atlantic; and South Padre Island, in the Gulf of Mexico.
His first special, Wednesday night (Nov. 14), emanating from Los Angeles’ Great Western Forum, could provide a clue as to what viewers are likely to see in future shows.
The special was very much a concert adapted for the tube, and commercials created plenty of downtime. Brooks chatted with the director in the interim, had his face dabbed for sweat by a makeup artist and warmed up the audience, which he enlisted to provide network IDs.
Once the one-hour broadcast ended, he added another hour stuffed with 11 songs that could weave their way into the next two specials, which, he said in an afternoon press conference, will have different music.
Though the specials are designed to plug his just-released Scarecrow album, Brooks played only two new songs, both during the CBS telecast. “Wrapped Up in You” featured Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’, an upbeat blues musician whom Brooks chose to champion. “If we listen to his music,” Brooks said both on-camera and during a break, “I think we’d love each other a lot more.”
Trisha Yearwood joined Brooks for some vocal fireworks on “Squeeze Me In,” a foot-stompin’ boogie tune from Delbert McClinton’s repertoire that puts a modern spin (“I’ve been faxing you love notes all day long/But you don’t ever fax me back”) on an ancient relationship issue.
Mo’ took center stage on his own “Hand It Over,” a slap-happy, rhythmic piece. Performed in the round, it had a front-porch feel that mimicked the look of Brooks’ Dr Pepper ads. Both guests grabbed hold for the speedy ride of “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up).” Yearwood performed on the original recording. Terry McMillan, who added the incendiary harmonica parts in the studio, also contributed to the live rendition, which closed the televised portion.
Though the network stopped broadcasting, the cameras continued to run, which means plenty of additional footage exists documenting events seen only by the live audience. Whether that footage will see light in some form is unknown.
During the post-TV portion of the evening, Brooks described himself as “kinda like a jukebox,” as he picked out tunes from his past without a defined set list. That left his band, Stillwater, a bit uncertain, though not unprepared, since the band had played the songs literally hundreds of times before. Most of his long-time support crew re-assembled for the final shows, including Tyler England, who left Stillwater in the mid-1990s to pursue a solo career.
Off air, Brooks dropped some of his showman tendencies and put the focus on the music, giving mostly brief introductions to songs that often took on new character in the context of his retirement from touring.
From “To Make You Feel My Love, his Dylan-penned contribution to the Hope Floats soundtrack, the line “I would hold you for a million years/To make you feel my love” had a paradoxical twist. “For a moment wasn’t I a king,” a line from “The Dance,” put a reflective spin on his career.
Brooks’ truncated version of Don McLean’s “American Pie” seemed an apt, full-circle ending to the night. It is, after all, a song he performed in clubs during his ascendant years and, with McLean himself in tow, at his landmark 1997 concert in New York’s Central Park at the peak of his career. With the Coast to Coast Live TV title in mind, “American Pie”’s key line, “Took the last train for the coast/The day the music died” held symbolic meaning that may or may not have been intended.
Brooks also rolled out “The River,” “Beaches of Cheyenne,” “Unanswered Prayers,” “Two Pina Coladas,” “Rodeo,” “Papa Loved Mama” and “Friends in Low Places,” all songs that could find their way into the two remaining concert specials airing Wednesday (Nov. 21) and Nov. 28 on CBS.
Each of those shows will have a different feel and a different list of guest stars, which Brooks refuses to disclose in advance. While Wednesday’s program reflected its California origins, the second special, originating from the USS Enterprise in Norfolk, should have a strongly patriotic flare, since servicemen and servicewomen are the intended audience.
For the cover of his album The Hits, Brooks wrapped himself in a stars-and-stripes motif, so his focus on American issues in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is not a great surprise. He chose “Wrapped Up in You” as a single over the George Jones duet “Beer Run” because of concerns about the relevance of the subject matter. And he kicked off Wednesday’s concert with a seven-voice gospel choir singing “Amazing Grace” in front of an American flag, while he and band members stood by reverently.
Prior to the show, Brooks instructed the audience about the kind of reaction he sought, noting that the “Amazing Grace” segment was intended as a “salute to honor” and a “salute to freedom.”
For Brooks, freedom includes the option to choose retirement. If he maintains that pledge, it adds yet another layer of meaning to “The River.” One of the dreams represented by that song will flow for him no more.