MINNEAPOLIS — At one end of downtown Friday night (April 12), the Minnesota Twins had their 2002 home opener in the Metrodome with Ann-Margret singing the national anthem for 48,000 (she’s in town in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). At the other end of downtown on Friday night, the Neon Circus & Wild West Show had its tour opener in Target Center, with Brooks & Dunn’s band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of 10,000 fans.
Before their band could finish the instrumental “Banner,” Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn emerged from behind an American flag and segued into “Only in America.” Historic speeches by John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush were broadcast, Old Glory waved across giant video screens, and, during the second chorus of B&D’s patriotic hit, red, white and blue streamers exploded into the crowd. It seemed like the Fourth of July in April.
Not surprisingly, three of the five acts on the second annual Neon Circus tour did some flag-waving. Heidi Newfield and Ira Dean of Trick Pony were decked out in outfits depicting the American flag. And Chris Cagle did some jingoistic songs and cheers. But the main attraction was those guys behind the best-selling Steers and Stripes CD.
Brooks & Dunn showed their stripes on their Steers material, which occupied a good portion of their 80-minute set. Dunn, who’s usually the laid-back half of the duo, got animated during “Ain’t Nothing ’Bout You.” Brooks, the high-energy half, whose solo voice gets stronger each year, did a nice turn on “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” during which photos of the late Dale Evans, Dale Earnhardt and Waylon Jennings flashed across the big screen to big cheers. When Brooks soloed on “Deny, Deny, Deny” from Stripes, Dunn was backstage, apparently partying at a disco if the audience believed what it was seeing on the giant screens while Kix was trying to sing.
As has often been the case in concert, there wasn’t much obvious camaraderie between Brooks & Dunn. When they sat on stools for an acoustic number together, Kix looked at Ronnie for a bit but that was pretty much it. They occasionally stood next to one another, such as during “Honky Tonk Truth,” but the truth is they could have been giving each other the cold shoulder. No high-fives for these longtime partners; that kind of teamwork was left to Trick Pony.
Per usual, Brooks & Dunn’s stage was decorated in new variations of their steer-head logo. The silver industrial risers, on which the band members played, were illuminated from within in all kinds of patterns, including arrows and diamonds. Often times, the lighting scheme was red, white and blue. By contrast, Brooks was dressed less colorfully than usual, wearing an off-the-store-rack blue-and-white plaid western shirt, blue jeans and black cowboy hat, while Dunn was in his familiar black leather jeans and black shirt with flowing shirttails.
On five video screens surrounding the stage, images of Brooks & Dunn were shown, often in a split-screen setup (Kix on one side, Ronnie on the other — or a clip from one of their videos on one side, with live footage on the other). Images changed quickly, and the cameramen favored zoom-lens action, helping visually to increase the energy of the performance.
None of the opening acts needed high-tech gimmicks to communicate their energy. Cagle, who kicked off the 5 1/2-hour program, was running into the crowd, spraying beer and generally having a good ol’ time. More beefy than beefcake, he knows how to use his reedy voice to good advantage. “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out,” his recent charttopper, was an effective expression about coping after a breakup.
Trick Pony is always more wound up than the mechanical bull in the Neon Circus lobby. But the group was especially wired in Minneapolis because goofball bassist Ira Dean graduated from North St. Paul High School in a local suburb. He saluted his hometown, darted into the crowd to kiss his mom and did his Kid Rock impression onstage. It turns out that Minneapolis/St. Paul is the best-selling CD market for Trick Pony, so in the middle of one song, DJ John Hines and his morning-drive partners from K102, the area’s leading country radio station, waltzed onstage to present gold-album plaques to the band.
Trick Pony singer Heidi Newfield provided a nice change of pace vocally — and visually, in red leather pants and a blue tank top with an American flag woven into the front — from the testosterone-heavy Neon Circus lineup. (There were no female performers last year.) But with only 35 minutes, she and her buddies never truly got to cut loose like they do at their own gigs.
This year, the Neon Circus has been expanded to five bands — one more than in 2001. The smooth-running evening seemed overlong — especially if you arrived early to ride the mechanical bull or watch the rope tricks or the contortionist (he passed his body through the hole in a stringless tennis racket and folded himself into a small box). Gary Allan would have been better served being first on the bill rather than in the middle. His California honky-tonk music has an attractive edge but was too low-key in a big arena and too laid-back sandwiched between the rambunctious Trick Pony and the unstoppable Dwight Yoakam.
Yoakam isn’t as rowdy as Toby Keith, who was on the Neon Circus last year, but just as big a crowd pleaser. His giant stage backdrop declared “Dwight Yoakam’s Bakersfield Biscuits Hour … More or Less,” and, for 57 minutes, he proved that he’s rock ’n’ roll sexy and honky-tonk happy. He pointed out that he’s been on the country scene for 18 years. “That makes us the oldest artist on the bill,” he said. “I don’t think my management or record company thought I’d live long enough to be the oldest artist on any bill.”
With his hiccupy voice, sexy shimmying and powder-blue fringe on his western jacket, Yoakam seemed like a timeless classic. His excellent band was in the groove, and he promised to have the folks “wiggle” in their seats to his Bakersfield beat. But his new, rollicking rockabilly single about “time to set me free” and the old favorites “Fast as You” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” had the fans dancing on their feet. He had his way with sad songs, too, including the lonely “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” and “I Sang Dixie.”
Yoakam’s performance reminded revelers that after all is said and done, despite all the flash and freaks, Brooks & Dunn’s Neon Circus & Wild West Show really owes more to the Grand Ole Opry than to Barnum & Bailey.
Jon Bream is music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.