B&D gets wild out east
Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Conn., April 19, 2002.
The multi-act arena-country Neon Circus & Wild West Show is on the road for the second year in a row, and this year's model has a bit more variety compared to the last, which, as Ronnie Dunn described it, was "a boys' night out tour" featuring Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith. Three things have remained the same, however: the stiltwalkers, jugglers, ropers, and other extra- musical attractions (including a clowning M.C.., country comedian Cletus T. Judd) that circulate prior to the show and in between acts; the number of acts you get for your money; and, of course, Brooks & Dunn themselves.
A Hendrix-esque instrumental version of the Star Spangled Banner announced the arrival of the headliners, who immediately tore into - what else? - "Only In America." What followed was essentially a greatest hits reprise of the likes of "Neon Moon," "Brand New Man," "My Maria," "Boot Scootin' Boogie," "Rock My World (Little Country Girl)" (complete with a giant onstage blowup doll of that little country girl), and "Ain't Nothin' 'Bout You" and "The Long Goodbye" from their current release. Kix Brooks did the vocal duties on their 1995 chart-topper, "You're Going to Miss Me When I'm Gone," which was accompanied by videoscreen images of some of those who've gone on of late - Waylon Jennings, Dale Evans, and others, culminating with Dale Earnhardt, to the roar of the Yankee crowd.
The pair threw in a couple of nice sidetracks - the hard shuffle of "Honky Tonk Truth," and a beautifully-spare acoustic treatment of a new song written by Dunn entitled "That's What You Get."
All of this took place on a stage that, in its lighting and arrangement (with the band arrayed in a single row along the back of the stage on risers of various heights) had the 3-D effect of making Brooks & Dunn appear to be popping up in front of the band. That effect, along with Brooks's usual careening and jumping around while Dunn stood more-or-less stock still and simply sang, could lead to questions about the ampersand between "Brooks" and "Dunn;" in spite of some interaction between the two, their live show tends to leave one wondering about the extent to which they're really a duo. That question aside, the two put on a show that, if it contained few surprises, sent the full-house home happy.
Brooks & Dunn were preceded by two shots of California Cool: first, 40 minutes of smoke and mood from Gary Allan, whose set was marred by a bad sound mix. The edgy traditionalist drew equally from his current release and his previous standout, "Smoke Rings In The Dark" and threw in a couple of Haggard covers to boot - the topical "Fightin' Side of Me" and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink."
His set's highlight was a fiery take on "Ghost Riders In The Sky" that sequed into Allan's fine version of "Runaway." Unfortunately, Allan seemed to be just getting going when he reached the end of his set; another 20 minutes (along with decent sound) would have served him well.
Allan was followed by Dwight Yoakam, who is touring as a supporting act for the first time since his club days and so had less time than he's accustomed to. Rather than attempting a general tour of his catalog, Yoakam chose to concentrate on the early hillbilly sound of "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc." and "Hillbilly Deluxe" - "Little Sister" and "Little Ways," "Honky Tonk Man" - and on the recent and stylistically similar "Tomorrow's Sounds Today." He kept to the same theme with the Jagger cowrite, "What's Left Of Me," from last year's soundtrack album to his film, and with one bon-bon, a new tune, "Sittin' Pretty." Yoakam's band remains one of the tightest touring/recording combinations going, and it's always a pleasure to see him perform, even in such an abbreviated outing.
The show opened with sets from two up-and-comers: Chris Cagle, who is perhaps the closest to the testosterone country of last year's participants, had the unenviable task of being first up. He did what he could with the limited time available to him in a seven-song, thirty-minute set of pumped-up country rock that was punctuated with a single ballad--his current single, "I Breathe In, I Breathe Out," which is, as he proudly noted, currently at the top of the country singles chart.
Cagle was followed by a distinct change of pace in Trick Pony. Whatever that band may be, it ain't your father's country, not with a bass player whose look and moves owe a lot more to Kid Rock than to Cowboy Copas, and when they roll out their pumped-up version of Cash's "Big River" as a tribute to their roots, you may be left a little bemused by what you see and hear. Still, if you think of the band as a remodeled Highway 101, you won't be too far off. Their set included country elements such as the lead-off hard shuffle "Pour Me," but as much pop and blues, especially when the tour's lone "girl singer," Heidi Newfield, was wailing on her harp.