No Fences: Garth Brooks & the Fuzzy Math of 10 Mega-Concerts

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Fifteen years ago this week, the greatest country music artist of all time, Garth Brooks, made history by playing a free concert to a massive crowd in New York's Central Park. Now, not just anybody gets to play Central Park, but Brooks had the megawatt stroke in the entertainment biz back then to make it happen. The event was broadcast live on HBO, and an estimated 750,000 people turned out to listen, making it one of the largest concerts in American history.

Or was it? Garth wasn't the first artist reported to draw a six-figure crowd to Central Park, but he was the last. You see, a funny thing happened in 2004, when the city denied permits to two groups looking to hold anti-war rallies in the park on the dubious claim that the mass gatherings would damage the grounds.

That decision was immediately challenged in court, with the rally organizers pointing to mega-concerts like Brooks' as proof that the park could handle assemblies hundreds of thousands strong with no problem.

All of a sudden, New York decided it was important to get a more accurate count of the people who showed up to free concerts in the park. In 2008, Bon Jovi -- one of the country's biggest, most reliable touring draws -- played a free show at Central Park, and park workers counted everyone who entered using clickers. The result? A crowd of less than 49,000 in the same exact spot where Garth played.

Now, Garth Brooks is a huge star and everything, but could he have possibly outdrawn Bon Jovi by that fucking much in the Northeast, of all places? Unlikely. Three-quarters of a million people is a whole hell of a lot, and New York is a long way from Nashville.

What's far more likely is that the people in charge of guessing the attendance were simply way, way off, and they probably weren't alone. Suddenly, every huge concert-attendance figure dating back all the way to Woodstock was thrown into question.

So, did Garth Brooks truly draw one of the biggest crowds in American history 15 years ago? Probably. But it almost certainly wasn't as large as 750,000 people. So which mega concert truly reigns supreme? Impossible to say for sure, but here are the contenders. Take a look for yourself and decide which of these ten concert clusterfucks was the biggest:


10. Woodstock 1969
Estimated attendance: 500,000

The granddaddy of 'em all, Woodstock proved that a truly scary number of people could come together for a rock concert without tearing each other apart or overthrowing a government. A who's who of '60s rock and folk icons played the groundbreaking festival, from Santana to Sha Na Na. It also became a classic concert film, providing handy stock footage for anybody putting together a '60s montage.

Part of the Woodstock legend is that way more people than anticipated showed up to gate-crash. That made the already difficult task of accurately counting the attendees nearly impossible. Advance tickets reportedly sold for the event were 186,000, and by all estimations, a heck of a lot more people than that were on hand during the concert's peak.

But half a million people? Ehh...


9. Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park
Estimated attendance: 500,000

By 1982, New York's beloved Central Park had deteriorated to the point that Mayor Ed Koch openly discussed the possibility of closing it. The city, some claimed, simply didn't have the money to restore or maintain the park any longer. Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis and promoter Ron Delsener came up with a plan to raise some funds: reunite Simon & Garfunkel in the park for their first performance in six years.

Not exactly best pals by this time, both singers nevertheless agreed to the concert. People were glad to see them, too: Estimates at the time placed attendance at around half a million people. Today, that number doesn't quite pass the smell test established by Bon Jovi. Still, the reunion was covered as a major event by the media and accomplished its mission of raising money and awareness on behalf of Central Park.

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