19 March 2012

"Garth Brooks: The Entertainer"

Garth Brooks: The Entertainer
DVD Box Set Release Date: 1 November 2006
Original List Price: $19.98
Walmart Exclusive

I did see The Beach Boys perform after a Louisville Redbirds game once upon a time, but I honestly remember little from it. I still count Garth Brooks as my first ever concert. I'll never forget how excited my friends and I were when we learned he was returning to Louisville for the first time in several years.

This was early 1998, so online ticket ordering was hardly as smooth as it is today. We went to Kroger to buy our ticket sales bracelets ahead of time. They were those paper bracelets they give you at clubs and we had to go, like, a week before we could take them off because we had to have them to secure our place in line. Finally, the morning came when tickets went on sale. I have never stood in a line for anything, before or since, that rivaled the queue for Garth tickets. We were wrapped all around the building, coiled across the parking lot and off into the side property. We all panicked when we were told that the show had sold out and none of us had even moved to within sight of the front door.

Eventually, though, Garth added more shows until everyone in line anywhere in the area that morning had had a chance to buy tickets to a show. I had just started working at Cracker Barrel and had plenty of cash on hand, so I personally paid for the maximum allotted tickets (six). Garth had worked it out so that, with tax, each ticket came to $20.00. (When asked about that pricing scheme, he quipped it was so low "Because I've seen the show!") False modesty aside, Garth sold out four consecutive nights at Freedom Hall and it was that way in every city of the tour. No one else had done what he did, and it's this that The Entertainer seeks to document by collecting four TV concert specials from the 90s.

Before I even begin, I want to go ahead and complain about the editing. 99% of any references to, or appearances by, Garth's first wife Sandy have been excised. Banter between Garth and the band or the audience has also been severely curtailed, leaving us with a sort of "just the songs, ma'am" presentation that cheats the viewer of the full showmanship of Garth Brooks. Most glaringly, each of the four specials have two songs presented as bonus tracks. You have to go into the special features menu to play each song individually. In most cases, these were all performances that were originally presented in the body of work of the rest of the concert. It is an artificial way to inflate the sense of depth of the box and I have always resented this.
"Dude! There's a third verse to 'Friends in'-ZOMG! THEY SMASHED GUITARS!"
I. This Is Garth Brooks!

My brother listened to Garth Brooks from the beginning on cassette. He loved to blare "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" because he could get away with singing a cuss word (he was six when the album came out). I had soured on country music by this point; I was much more into M.C. Hammer in 1990, but I was exposed to Garth's music at middle school dances. I liked "The Dance" and "Friends in Low Places" was fun--though I was never quite sure how the deejay got away with playing that at our school function. Then came 17 January 1992. My brother and I were at our dad's for the weekend, rare for me by then. The three of us sat in the living room and watched This Is Garth Brooks! from start to finish. Outside of baseball and a handful of movies, I don't know that there was ever anything that the three of us watched and enjoyed together like that special. It blew my mind.

This was where the world was introduced to the third verses of "The Thunder Rolls" and "Friends in Low Places," and both were highlights of the special. The concert footage is interrupted by interviews with Garth, his band, crew members and his albums producer, Allen Reynolds. At the beginning of the special, Garth Brooks was a novelty who had to prove himself worthy of my attention. By the end of it, though, Garth Brooks had become larger than life and I knew there had been a paradigm shift in my interests.

The video quality is poorest on this special, likely because of the age. There was a VHS release, and I rented it several times at Roadrunner Video in LaGrange. Eventually, they sold it and I bought it. I still have that rental copy. Personally, I think it looks better on VHS than it does on DVD and I much prefer "Shameless" and "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" be incorporated into the special than presented as "bonus tracks." This Is Garth Brooks! also had a Laser Disc release.
Because, really, why wouldn't you set your stage on fire?
II. This Is Garth Brooks, Too!

Gonna be honest: I didn't see this one when it aired on TV in 1994 and I can't say for sure why that is. The original TV broadcast was structured differently; there were sketches of Garth at home, channel surfing and offering a sort of running, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary on the special mocking his own performances. It's rather silly stuff that was excised for the DVD release here. I've seen both versions and while part of me wishes they had included the sketches as bonus content, I readily concede it plays much stronger as a concert film without those interruptions. There were no previous official home video releases of this special.
I'm not saying Garth was bigger than Jesus. But he was as big as The Beatles.
III. Live from Dublin

This special aired in 1998 as Ireland and Back. Its first 90 minutes are from a performance at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland and the final 20-30 minutes was a performance of material from Sevens at a small venue in  Los Angeles. The Ireland concert is presented here without the Sevens coda. That greatly disappoints me, as Sevens is my favorite album by anybody, ever. Two of the songs from that brief set, "She's Gonna Make It" and "Cowboy Cadillac," are the bonus tracks for this disc. This special is a lot of fun and represents a rather dramatic evolution from the first two specials. There were no previous official home video releases of this special.
When your crowd is so big you can't even see them all.
IV. Live from Central Park

The concert, given 7 August 1997, quickly became legendary. Estimates place the attendance at nearly a million people and HBO's live telecast drew huge ratings. I missed it, due to not being at Central Park or having HBO. In early 1998, they released this special on VHS including some encore material that didn't air on TV. I bought it at Target and I couldn't even tell you how many times I've watched it on VHS over the years. It's just amazing to me to watch a master showman play a crowd of a million people for two hours. The thing that kills me about it is that even though the energetic songs are larger than life, the slow songs are just as introspective and intimate as they would be in your living room. This is the true magic of Garth Brooks: He could make you feel like you were attending the biggest party on the planet one minute, and make everyone else in the world disappear the next.

To fully appreciate this concert--and, indeed, Garth Brooks as The Entertainer--one needs to view the original VHS release. The removal of all the bantering here, plus the two songs ("Unanswered Prayers" and "We Shall Be Free") really hurt this one. If you just come to it on DVD I suppose you don't know any better, but if your purpose is to study the greatest entertainer of his era at his finest, you need the VHS.
Buy this VHS if you can.

V. Video Greatest Hits

Fifteen music videos are presented here, including the never-before-seen "I Don't Have to Wonder" from Sevens that was shot when the album came out but never released until this DVD box set nearly a decade later. Also premiering was "Anonymous" from 1998's The Limited Series box set. The videos are not presented in chronological order, and I can only guess that the intended effect was to reflect a sort of concert-esque sequencing. Four of them are concert clips: "Callin' Baton Rouge" is taken from This Is Garth Brooks, Too!; "Tearin' It Up (And Burnin' It Down)" is from Live in Dublin and the tribute to Chris LeDoux, "Good Ride Cowboy," was performed live in Times Square during the 2006 Country Music Association Awards telecast. "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)" is a montage of footage from Garth's first World Tour.

The rest, however, display Garth's willingness to experiment with the music video format. "The Thunder Rolls" incorporates its third verse into a drama of domestic violence that got the video banned from CMT. "Standing Outside the Fire" gives us the story of a young man with Down's syndrome (played by Chris Burke) who competes in a high school track race--against other students who aren't handicapped. "We Shall Be Free" is a survey of the social challenges--and progress--of the early 1990s and "The Change" is a tribute to the tireless rescue workers who responded to the damage at the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombed by Timothy McVeigh. My favorite Garth video, though, remains "The Red Strokes" in which he sits dressed in all white playing a white piano in an empty white room...and is doused in vibrant paint. It's simple, but I just want to live in that video.
I'm irked by the edits to these specials, and annoyed that the handful of widescreen music videos are not presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio (meaning they're pillar boxed on your screen, surrounded with black bars on the top and bottom and on the sides). The video quality of This Is Garth Brooks! is disappointing. Still, I just sat through all seven hours, interrupted only by eating and running in and out of the bathroom and found I enjoyed it all (when I wasn't thinking about what had been removed). This DVD box set is out of print at present, but there were so many in circulation just a few years ago that you shouldn't have any trouble finding a copy.

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