Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Is It Live?

Or is it a carefully manipulated simulation, calculated to elicit maximum response from the listener?

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  Listening to Garth Brooks' new live collection, it's apparent that part of the singer's appeal comes from his ability to facilitate fan participation. A big-time sports aficionado, Brooks understands that large crowds, especially those packed into arenas, yearn to stand and scream and sing along.

On Double Live, his first concert album, not only do fans cheer; they harmonize like an enormous choir on nearly every chorus. He even gives the crowd entire stanzas of several well-known hits, turning the microphone around so that it's the fans who are featured.

For this, he has struck another first: No other live album in memory has given so much time to the crowd rather than to the artist. (Peter, Paul, & Mary must be jealous.) In Brooks' case, whether you think that's populism or egotism probably depends on where you stand on the little g-man.

Because so many songs are recorded as mass sing-alongs, this is not the place for a new fan to start his Garth collection. Unless listeners have memorized the words, they're not going to know what's being sung, because it's mighty difficult to decipher lyrics once the crowd takes over.

Besides, only three of the 26 songs are new. In fact, this is the fourth time Brooks has packaged many of these tunes for sale. "The Dance," "Friends in Low Places," "The River," "Shameless," "The Thunder Rolls," and others all appeared as album tracks, on the single-disc The Hits, and on the multi-disc box set that came out earlier this year.

As for the new album, Brooks has openly admitted that this is a simulated live record, one made by digitally editing various performances and studio overdubs into one supreme version. In years gone by, rock bands used to hide the fact that live albums were spliced-together recordings rather than true documents of a particular concert. But for more than a couple of decades, bands have been taking concert tapes into the studio and touching them up, then putting them out under the 'live' label.

Brooks took this concept to the extreme. He spliced together recordings of several performances, taking a whoop from a Texas show and putting it next to a vocal from a Florida concert. On top of that, he spent the spring and summer hauling musicians in and out of Nashville's Music Mill studio, where solos were brightened, vocal parts were fixed, and vocal harmonies added where they previously didn't exist.

So don't buy Double Live thinking it's an honest representation of one night with Brooks. Instead, this is digital Garth, a concert rendered by Apple computers and a corps of engineering professionals overseen by producer Allen Reynolds. This is what a Garth concert sounds like in Brooks' dreams. No wonder everyone knows the words.

In some ways, Double Live actually improves on the previously recorded versions: Songs like "The River" and "Standing Outside the Fire" sound better in a stripped-down band format than they do on the overbearing original recordings. Throughout the album, Brooks' voice remains focused and unwavering. That's one of the benefits of a doctored recording: Usually his voice falters in concert, largely because he puts so much energy into exhorting the crowd and doing all he can to keep the intensity high.

But the live album also reveals how stagy and fake Brooks' exhortations can sound. After seeing him perform several times, it becomes obvious that his so-called spontaneity is actually routine and predictable. Perhaps that's what made it possible to patch together so many different concert excerpts: If a song is done in exactly the same manner night after night, then there are a whole lot of performances available for cutting and pasting. And on Double Live, every would-be surprise sounds set up, especially to anyone who has seen more than one Brooks performance.

Brooks may realize this. Just as he knows his fans expect him to grow misty-eyed with each version of "The Dance," he also knows they expect him to act surprised when they cheer. It's the same with the concert recording: In interviews, he has openly talked about the studio editing and overdubs. Perhaps he feels he's being open and honest with his fans--or perhaps there's no longer any demarcation in pop culture between real life and mass marketing. Performers don't worry about hiding the puppet strings anymore, because they don't think listeners will be upset by the idea that they're purposely being manipulated.

Last spring, when young country singer Mark Wills released the ballad "I Do," he openly talked about how he and Mercury Records targeted the song for what he termed "the wedding season." It all went as planned: The single topped the country-music radio charts during mid-summer, coinciding with the peak time for American nuptials. The song got an extra promotional push because it custom-fit the slow dances at wedding receptions.

Would newlyweds feel manipulated if they knew that their wedding song, from the very moment of conception, was inspired by dollar signs rather than emotions? Do record buyers feel cheated that the Garth "live" album they're playing was carefully put together in the recording studio--just like the original version of the song they already own? Does it matter that audience reaction is modulated by a volume knob rather than by the actual sound of the crowd?

Maybe not. Maybe when people buy Double Live, they simply want to take home a sonically perfect representation of a show--for the most part, a studio recording with an applause track. Just as Brooks' fans go to shows to participate rather than to listen, maybe they'll buy this live record just to reminisce about the rowdy evening they had.

In this sense, Double Live simulates an immense campfire meeting, with Brooks as the beloved scout master. For those who've been to Camp Garth and haven't yet tired of buying newly packaged versions of the same songs, Double Live will serve as a suitable keepsake. Oh, and watch for the concert video, sure to be coming your way soon--then you can buy the same songs all over again.

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