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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Tapping Into the Glory : Garth Brooks Shows a Feel for Country Tradition

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Advisory to rival country music singers: Think twice before agreeing to follow Garth Brooks on stage.

There’s a reason that Brooks, along with Clint Black, is at the forefront of the biggest sales upswing in country music since the old “Urban Cowboy” days.

Brooks may just look like another copy-cat “hat” act in his photos, and he may sound a bit too much like a Merle Haggard echo at times on record.

Put him on stage, however, and he taps into the sociological currents of country music as well as anyone since the glory days of Willie and Waylon.

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Brooks isn’t a show-stopping vocalist a la Haggard or his other hero, George Jones, but he has a wonderful feel for material that expresses the underdog, blue-collar instincts of his audience.

Equally important, he delivers his music with the kick-up-your-heels enthusiasm of Kirk Gibson circling the bases after a game-winning home run.

This good ol’ boy exuberance--with all the winking and waving at the fans--may prove wearing in time. Yet it seemed absolutely genuine Saturday afternoon at the Mesa Marin Raceway here, and the estimated 12,000 fans responded with such affection that you’d think Brooks was a local boy.

The message in Brooks’ music is sometimes playfully optimistic: the love-is-enough sentiment of “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,” where his gal’s limousine is a pick-up truck and her favorite dress is a pair of faded jeans.

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But Brooks’ themes can also be bittersweet: the social rejection of “Friends in Low Places,” where our working-class hero shows up at a wealthy old flame’s black-tie affair in his boots and raises a glass of champagne in mocking toast before heading to his world: the neighborhood bar.

Either way, the songs--some written by Brooks--represent a return of meaningful point of view and hard-core country tradition after years in Nashville of sacrificing much of country’s basic subject matter and steel guitar-accented sound in hopes of appealing to a wider pop audience.

The irony is that Brooks--as well as Black--is doing such a good job of expressing honest emotions that he is making impressive inroads in the pop field.

Another reason for his pop appeal is that there is a touch of pop influence in his vocals--and he sometimes reaches out to pop or rock strains. He closed his show here, for instance, with a rowdy rendition of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.”

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As reflected in the audience Saturday, Brooks--who is from Yukon, Okla., and is in his late 20s--is also attracting a lot of teen-agers and young adults in a field that was once almost exclusively an over-30 market.

Brooks’ instincts for songs isn’t perfect on record. Both his Capitol albums are weakened by nondescript and unaffecting songs (including a lazy remake of the Fleetwoods’ old “Mr. Blue”), and even some of his better songs have some clumsy edges.

But the best songs deal with genuine emotions in fresh ways--and Brooks, backed by a six-piece band, relied on his strongest material in his fast-paced, 50-minute set Saturday.

He opened with his own “Not Counting You,” which offers the kind of witty and ironic expression of romantic miscalculation and macho posturing that we’d expect from Lyle Lovett.

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Brooks can also be poignant. Co-written by Brooks, Pat Alger and Larry B. Bastain, “Unanswered Prayers” is a sweet, affecting tale of a married man’s reaffirmation of his love.

The challenge for Brooks is to continue to find honest, affecting songs and to maintain freshness as a performer. That’s not an easy assignment. If he does, however, he’s assured a major place in country music for the ‘90s.

The Raceway show was the first of a series of Southern California appearances for Brooks, including stops at a Christmas benefit concert Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre and then sold-out shows next Monday and Dec. 11 at the Crazy Horse in Santa Ana.

As the headliner, Reba McEntire was the brave one who followed Brooks on stage Saturday, and the veteran singer, who has been frequently reviewed in these pages and has more than a dozen No. 1 country hits to her credit, did a commendable, if not complete job of holding the audience’s attention.

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Perhaps a better pure singer than Brooks, McEntire approaches the evocativeness of Emmylou Harris at times, though her material and arrangements are far more limited than Harris’. McEntire also specializes in a folksy, hand-waving approach on stage, but it seemed a touch slick measured against Brooks’.


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