CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On the one hand, Garth Brooks’ drive-in event could be considered a positive step in the right direction for those who crave a return to “normal” — with normal, in this case, being a time and a place for large numbers of people to come together to enjoy big-budget entertainment.
On the other: If this is what the future of “concert-going” looks like, go ahead and count me out.
Honestly, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to get out of the experience of seeing “Encore Live Presents Garth Brooks: A Drive-In Concert Experience,” a prerecorded performance screened Saturday night at more than 300 outdoor theaters in the U.S. and Canada and billed as the 58-year-old country megastar’s return to “live” performing.
But I could feel in my bones from the moment he and his band made their first on-screen appearance on stage — while breaking into 1993 hit “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)” — that whatever those expectations might be, this event wasn’t going to meet them.
I saw it at the Hounds Drive-In in Kings Mountain. Here are the things that stood out to me about the experience:
1. The whole “opening act” thing was a head-scratcher. Or, at least, the way it was presented during this particular show didn’t work. Though I do have my misgivings about Brooks’ prerecorded production, I still would have preferred seeing a mini-concert film by “opener” Randall King instead of just being forced to sit through five of his music videos (all of which can easily be accessed online). Another option would have been for Brooks to forgo an opener altogether and add five songs to his set, which was already short at just 1 hour and 14 minutes.
2. It did not come anywhere near replicating the thrill of a true live performance. Look, I get it. I knew going in that this was a concert film and nothing more, as should have anyone who took the time to do even a little bit of homework beforehand — or to read the fine print on the ticket, which clearly stated, “It is not live and Garth Brooks will not be in attendance.”
But to me, Brooks’ performance, though energetic, came off as one-dimensional. I didn’t feel connected to it much at all. I think that’s in part because it was missing a similarly energetic response from the audience, which naturally had less reason to cheer because … well, why bother? He can’t actually hear you cheering.
On top of that, it was almost too perfect, too slickly produced. There was nothing raw or spontaneous about it.
“He has spent weeks on this performance,” said Encore Live founder and CEO Walter Kinzie told me before the event. “Garth worked around the clock on it at his ranch near Nashville and then in his studio in Nashville to bring this thing to life. It’s been an ongoing process.”
And so while the final product, as Kinzie said, was completed just last week, it felt like it could have been months since Brooks had filmed it.
3. Car horns are a poor substitute for applause. We’re conditioned to clap at events when we hear others clapping. When we hear people honk car horns, we’re conditioned to get really irritated.
4. The standard hallmarks of live-music events don’t work so well in this format. On a couple of occasions, Brooks tried to directly connect with the crowd by asking them to do things like turn on their cellphone lights for his 1992 ballad “The River” and to sing along (“inside your car, outside your car”) during 1998 party-starter “Two Piña Coladas.” But it just felt awkward, and participation was way more sporadic than it would have been in a true concert setting — I would imagine because lots of people probably figured, Well, what does it matter if he can’t actually see or hear us?
5. The audio experience ranged from just OK to awful. That’s in large part because the sound mix at drive-ins is basically homemade. Our group tuned into the hyper-local FM station using an old-school boom box, which sounded good enough if you were sitting right next to it, with the speakers aimed directly at you. But there were four of us, and we sat two by two on either side of the boom box, and I was on the end, so what I heard from there was a muddy and echo-y chorus of battery-operated radios and car stereos. The most apt comparison I can come up with is this: You know when you leave a concert at an outdoor amphitheater before it’s over, and you can still hear the music playing when you get to your car? There; that’s what it sounded like for me.
(Another thought: It’s probably not cost-effective and the logistics may present challenges, but I doubt I was the only person wondering if it would have been possible to set up loudspeakers — like the ones at amphitheater shows — that could have just thrown a wall of sound at us without the need for individual radios.)
6. At $100 per car, we all overpaid. It’s typically about $20 per carload to get into a drive-in for a movie.
I understand this was a special movie, but given everything I mentioned above, I suspect the fans who felt like they’d been taken for a ride at $100 might not have complained at $50, while Encore Live and Brooks still could have made a profit and the individual drive-ins still would have gotten valuable exposure to potential new customers.
Meanwhile, I would have paid twice as much — probably even more — to bring a carload of family members or close friends to a true live concert by a big-name artist in a drive-in setting. I felt safely socially distanced for the majority of my time there Saturday night, and I can imagine shows like the one Keith Urban has done and the ones Brad Paisley is planning to do as a great way to responsibly enjoy concerts that bond artists and fans in this uncertain time.
Look, I understand that to pull off what Brooks wanted to pull off could only be done via a pre-recorded show, due to the disparity in time zones and sunsets from coast to coast.
And don’t get me wrong — I certainly believe the singer was trying to do a good thing. I just wonder, one, if maybe he was trying a little bit too hard; and two, if we all wouldn’t have been better off putting it on a streaming service, where we could have enjoyed it on our own TVs and our own speaker systems.
Sure, perhaps that defeats the point. He wanted to bring us all together, right?
But to do so, for that price, he’s got to give us a better excuse than this one.
Garth Brooks’ setlist
1. “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
3. “The Beaches of Cheyenne”
4. “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” (Dennis Robbins cover)
5. “The River”
6. “Fishin’ in the Dark” (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band cover)
7. “Two Piña Coladas”
8. “That Summer”
9. “The Thunder Rolls”
10. “Standing Outside the Fire”
11. “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)”
12. “More Than a Memory”
13. “We Shall Be Free”
14. “Ask Me How I Know”
15. “Callin’ Baton Rouge” (The Oak Ridge Boys cover)
16. “Shameless” (Billy Joel cover)
17. “Friends in Low Places”
18. “The Dance”
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