They missed their train, so they caught a bus. The ride to New York took five long hours, and when they finally arrived in Central Park, the public address was blaring that the time was “G minus five” - five minutes until Garth Brooks would dash across the stage. But as soon as Peggy Graham of Worcester, Mass., heard the opening beat of the opening song - “Rodeo,” one of her favorites - she was lip-syncing every word.
She mouthed the words to the second song, “Papa Loves Mama,” and pretty much everything else that Brooks sang. Never mind that she could not see the stage or that her 15-year-old daughter, Loretta, had to hold her camera over her head to take a picture of the country music superstar on a giant television screen.
“We’re here,” Graham said happily, “and he puts on such a show it’s unbelievable.” Then she got a second look at the monitor a quarter-mile away. “He shaved!”
Brooks’ concert in Central Park was a distinctly urban hootenanny: there he was, swaggering across a 360-foot-long stage only a few steps from hard-surfaced avenues where limousines outnumber the pickup trucks that prowl the dusty roads in his songs. He rhapsodized about “Friends in Low Places,” but in New York he had friends in high places. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani designated Thursday Garth Brooks Day, and Gov. George Pataki attended the concert with his wife, Libby, and their daughter Emily.
“With my background,” the governor said, “how could you not like ‘Friends in Low Places’?”
But even with Billy Joel joining him in “New York State of Mind,” it was not really a New York crowd.
This was more “the hard-hat, gunrack, achin’-back, overtaxed, flagwavin’, fun-lovin’ crowd” that Brooks sings about. Or, as he puts it, “Their heart is in the music, and they love to play it loud.”
Mayor Giuliani, who broadcast his weekly radio show from the concert site, said “I’ve never seen more cowboy hats in Central Park in my entire life.”
By the time the concert began, the police estimated that they numbered between 225,000 and 250,000 people; a few minutes later, Brooks announced from the stage that the crowd was 900,000 strong. Maybe his math was better in “The Cowboy Song,” which mentions toting up the number of good mounts the boys can ride into camp. The Parks Department said on Thursday that Paul Simon’s concert on Aug. 15, 1991, drew the largest crowd for a concert in Central Park’s history, with 600,000 people, 150,000 fewer than the estimate given then.
City officials had predicted that Brooks would bring in 200,000 to 220,000 people, about half the audience at a Simon and Garfunkel concert on Sept. 19, 1981, and only two-thirds of Diana Ross’ audience for each of two concerts in July 1983.
Still, officials said that Brooks should not be disappointed at being in the same league as Barbra Streisand, who drew 250,000 in June 1967. “The numbers were inflated in the past for commercial effects,” Giuliani said on Wednesday. Referring to police and Parks Department officials who planned Thursday night’s performance, he added, “They’re working off aerial photographs, and believe me, those numbers are more accurate than anything you read in the newspapers.”
Chaos seemed to be at a minimum. Officials said that 25 people were treated for heat-related problems or for minor injuries, and 5 others were arrested, 4 for disorderly conduct, and one for assaulting an officer. There was one bit of unplanned pyrotechnics on the stage: one of the big light towers caught fire in a shower of confetti at the end of the performance. Three or four stagehands scurried up a ladder, put out the fire and dropped what appeared to be a light bulb onto the stage while Brooks sang an encore.
From where Brooks stood tall in his Stetson, Central Park looked like the set for a huge Hollywood Western - the black hats had arrived, and so had the white hats. But this was a crowd that knew more about cell phones than the prison cells that pop up in country songs: Some concertgoers who lost their friends just dialed them up for directions through the crowd.
There were adults who had caught middle-of-the-night trains or had driven for 24 hours straight. There were 3-year-olds whose mastery of English was limited to a single declarative sentence: “Garth Brooks rules.” There were 10-gallon hats and white boots making footprints in what, inexplicably on a hot and sunny day, was mud. There were concertgoers who marveled at the New York prices that they found themselves paying - $5 for a two-scoop ice cream cone, $3 for a canned soft drink.
“It’s Garth - don’t need another reason,” explained Jennifer Parker of Hinesville, Ga., who drove to New York in a 1965 Chevrolet Impala that has what she called “four-window air-conditioning.” In a sort of retro-hippie meets country chic, Ms. Parker had a circle of eight peace signs tattooed around her navel.
Long before Brooks took the stage in the North Meadow at 8 p.m., his faithful fans began arriving from across the country - and the city. Before dawn broke on Thursday, there was a line 300 strong waiting to get into the park. And in the hours before the show, hundreds of cowboy-hatted fans were buying tokens in Penn Station and collaring helpful New Yorkers for directions to the C train.
“They’re all subway virgins,” said Karyn Cardigan, 31, of South Amboy, N.J. “They all keep falling over. You should put saddles on their seats.”
Keith Cooper, 23, of Bellmore, L.I., said he wasn’t surprised by the turnout - or by the fact that so many in attendance were from the area.
“I knew Garth Brooks had a lot of fans,” he said. “But true New Yorkers will go to anything that’s free.”
Mark Schreck, 35, and Dan Nero, 29, both of Columbus, Ohio, arrived at the park at 2:30 a.m. to find 360 people ahead of them in line to get inside.
Pamela White, 39, of the Bronx, who insisted she was just passing through the park, said she couldn’t understand what the fuss was about and that she was surprised a country music act would draw so many people.
Still, she said, “It’s nice to have concerts that bring together people of different cultures.”
But even in a city famous for its high prices, concertgoers were stunned by the $10 fries, the $5 slices of pizza and the $3 bottled waters.
“I think it’s crazy to pay $3 for water or a pretzel,” said Karen Schoenfeld, 26, of Parsippany, N.J.
About 1,000 cops were on hand to keep the peace as part of the city’s deal with HBO and Brooks, and as many as seven city agencies were to help clean up after the concert.
There were stacks of confiscated lawn chairs and beer-filled coolers at the entrances. But police said the clean-cut crowd was mostly orderly at the booze-free affair.