Let me start this by saying that I’m from The Moy. You know Garth Brooks’ songs by osmosis. They’re in the sheep dip and the wee bottles of McGuigans. We all stand around burning piles of household waste, out the back field, learning them with our cousinwifes.
I went with my sister, we both live in Belfast or thereabouts and have the sort of fractured relationship that everyone has when they grow up in a household of people. I can distinctly remember learning all the songs on In Pieces (I had to look up the name of this album as it was just referred to as the ‘red and black one’) pointed at the sea, in the back of my Dad’s green Volvo on one of those mandatory holidays where it pisses down in Portrush and the youngest (me) spends the journey on a tartan blanket in the boot. Beside the flasks of stew.
I know all the words to ‘Ain’t Going Down til the Sun Comes Up’ and was probably alongside ‘World in Motion’ and The Beastie Boys as my introduction to rap music.
More problematic cultural references to follow.
This was at a time when Steps were Boot Scootin’ and where the hell did he come from? Where did he go? Cotton Eye Joe was on the wireless and in the Foam Parties (I nearly drowned at a foam party once, but that is a story for another time). There is a theory that Cotton Eyed Joe isn’t a song about being drunk on moonshine but is either an STI swab or a racist slur. It’s probably both. That said, the best ever name I have seen for an Indian Restaurant is ‘Chutney Joe’ in Saintfield. Excellent work.
My mate Hannah did her ethnomusicology PHD on the jiving scene in mid-Ulster. It’s just a socially acceptable way for Young Farmers to touch each other, right? It’s interesting too that these dances weren’t particularly sectarian places, even though they were held in Church or Chapel Halls. Plenty of mixing went on. Same could be said for line dancing. Line dancing was a phenomenon. The Twisted Wheel in Manchester had Northern Soul, Daly’s Moy had the ‘Cowboy Cha Cha’, ‘Swamp Thing’ and the in no way homoerotic ‘Slap Leather’.
Of course, most countries are influenced by American culture or get their own culture spit-shined and sold back to them fit for TV, but Ireland is the US’s number one big lick. There were the rock stars of Primary 3, Ballymena-based, The Tharp family. Missionaries from Louisiana that came up with classroom bangers such as ‘I Love Jesus Better Than Ice Cream (but ice cream’s very good)’. Forever Living Products. One of the first Ponzi schemes in my memory to come to NI. As it was American and dear love her she had no idea about soft lighting and plastic surgery, my ma had vats of the aloe vera thinking it would have her living forever. Who knows it just might, for there’s still about eight cases of it in the garage.
People from this Island love nothing more than when we hear ourselves reflected back at us by those who buggered off to shinier places and who didn’t grow up entrenched with quite the same weight of shame. With the use of simple melodies that you can gulder on a bus.
That brings me to the concert.
So I hadn’t seen my sister in about three years and in a fit of weakness, I asked her if she wanted to go, as FB Marketplace was awash with sad cowboys and cowgirls getting rid of their tickets (I’m trying to buy a greenhouse). We decided to get the ‘Buses to Concerts’ bus down that leaves you in that wee pub near Croke Park. That poor driver, but he did himself no favours. Of course all the ‘girls’ at the back (not me officer) were doing the drunk aunty classics – The Gambler, Wonderwall, the one about a wagon wheel … Your man stopped the bus and in a thick accent shouted at them ‘This is not the Party Bus!!’ starting a revolution of ‘We like to Party’ by the Vengaboys for the next forty minutes. The Venga Bus was, in fact, coming. So anyway. All the wee bottles of Kulov and strawberry drink were confiscated and we made it there.
Croke Park is a great venue. A big brutal swirly job. I would say the seats aren’t quite made for the sheer girth of a lass from Tyrone rared on Cookstown snags, but all in all, everything went very smoothly. The security staff had people funnelled in through the residential streets with very little fuss. My seat was pure in the nose bleeds but I was happy enough and the sister had brought baps. Tell you what though, 8 euros for a gin in a tin can do one.
The preamble to the concert had Garth (first name terms) come on the screens and appeal to the crowd that if they see anyone struggling to help them out and most importantly have fun. It was basically a Fugazi gig at this point. Mosh risk was low. Brown Shoe to jean ratio is about 1:1. 60 per cent of people in cowboy hats. We were seated next to some Traveller women and their outfits were full-blown Dolly, one of them had rhinestoned their top teeth. Country Grilles. Loved it.
Whatever happened to Nelly? Still sippin’ bud, gettin’ perved and gettin’ dubbed?
Garth Brooks came on and everyone lost their small town tiny minds. He was running up and down the stage like a whippet at a birthday party with one of those U2 setups where the staging goes into the crowd like a big dick. People were bucking Irish flags at him left and right and every time he picked it off the ground and folded it neatly, or gave it to one of his team. Americans have a bit more respect for that sort of carry on (only the tenth year the fleg protests ongoing at Belfast City Hall but sure we’ll gloss over the likes of thon). He was shouting that we had “got the right guy on the right night,” and we were “pouring gasoline” on his flame. His energy and stage presence was genuinely impressive. Some feat for the size of the place. His musicians were of expected tight lineage. All in the belt buckles of their ancestors whilst he was belting out ‘Baton Rouge’, ‘Shameless’ and erm ‘Two Pina Coladas’. I fancied the one in the white Stetson on the fiddle.
Then we got to the ballads.
Garth Brooks wouldn’t have needed to open his mouth throughout the whole set. For everyone, all ages, were singing those songs back at him. The audience sang most of ‘The River’ and I must say it was possibly one of the most beautifully pure things I have ever witnessed. It felt like catharsis. Like war was over. I did. I cried a bit.
The Thunder Rolled (the lighting for this was a total whopper buzz and the bass was an operation in Brown Note) and we blamed it all on our roots and the crowd looked after each other and Trisha Yearwood came out and sang that duet by Lady Gaga that for one second I thought “Flip did Garth Brooks write that?!” Garth was in tears thanking everyone, everyone around me was in tears and you could tell he didn’t want to leave the stage. Cos he said it about eight times. So he came back for his second encore to play a few pared back songs, by those that have been on the Croke Park Penis Stage before him.
It was endearing and lovely and sent everyone home soothed.
It could be very easy to dismiss this as a load of culchie, inbred, farm feral nonsense. I have no idea what the whole Chris Gaines thing was about either – but you know what – Garth Brooks brings people together. Of all age ranges. For over two hours I saw nothing but joy and love and people singing their hearts out and hugging their mates and being dead on to each other and yes maybe some self-indulgent nostalgia and poor sartorial choices but surely if music isn’t there to create those moments of bonding when you don’t have the words with Lynsey from Derryfubble and free abandon then what can? Church?
I loved it. It was great. I’ll hear no more about it.
Shove your Stockhausen up your hole. Dawn Richardson