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Garth Brooks Takes on N.Y.C.

The country singer transforms Central Park into a giant hoedown

Garth Brooks's most-repeated expression during his free concert last week in New York's Central Park was "Cool, very cool," as if he couldn't believe that anyone had bothered to show up.

This, coming from an artist who has sold 62 million albums domestically, more than any other artist except the Beatles. And this, coming from someone who conducted one of the most massive publicity campaigns in recent music history.

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His concert attracted about 250,000 people (the city's estimate), which puts him in the league with other major stars who have given free performances, such as Barbra Streisand, Elton John, and Luciano Pavarotti. Paul Simon's 1991 show was the record-breaker with 600,000.

The concert was designed to publicize the same-day release of Brooks's new album, "Sevens." But his record company, EMI, recently went under, and the album's release date has been indefinitely delayed. Other artists might have canceled, but Brooks performed anyway.

People who aren't fans of Brooks may wonder what all the fuss is over an unassuming country singer in a cowboy hat.

First, Brooks isn't really a country singer as much as he is a pop artist. Both his music and his live performances reflect the best pop music from the '70s and '80s. He says he was inspired as much by Billy Joel and Aerosmith as he was by country legends Merle Haggard or Lefty Frizzell.

His brand of country is tuneful, utterly accessible, hook-filled, and vibrant. His live performances reflect his arena-rock sensibility; wearing a clip-on microphone, he runs across the stage, combining the energy of Bruce Springsteen with the flamboyance of Elton John.

Tight choreography and pyrotechnics are combined to create a spectacle, for which he doesn't charge more than $18 a ticket, far below what he could command. This, incidentally, is the reason he hasn't played New York City in seven years; the city's high costs make it impossible for him to keep his ticket price that low.

In addition, Brooks belongs to that pantheon of entertainers whose persona transcends their music. He takes such an endless joy in what he does that audiences can't help but be swept along by his energy and enthusiasm.

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Endlessly gracious and humble, he's also the consummate nice guy, the Regular Joe who seems overwhelmed by the affection people have for him. In the course of his two-hour show (he played another 30 minutes after the HBO broadcast ended), he didn't perform a single new song, concentrating instead on the classics his fans know and love, including, among many others, "The Thunder Rolls" and "We Shall Be Free."

The vibe was remarkably warm and mellow, especially compared with past park concerts. It was, as might have been expected, a crowd that seemed to consist of out-of-towners as much as New Yorkers. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani commented that he had never seen so many cowboy hats in Central Park, and it was true: The fans transformed the park into one giant hoedown.

Ever the showman, Brooks hedged his bets by enlisting Billy Joel to perform as a special guest. The "surprise" appearance, which everyone seemed to know about, garnered the biggest cheers of the evening, as the country superstar and Joel dueted on such songs as Joel's "You May Be Right." Another surprise performer was Don McLean, who sang with Brooks on his classic pop anthem "American Pie."

The two guest stars, representative of American pop music of the past two decades, only served to confirm Brooks's high place in the pop pantheon.

* HBO will broadcast an encore presentation of the Central Park performance on Sept. 13.

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