Brooks & Dunn’s Neon Circus Wraps in Jersey

Midgets lined the stage, snakes slithered underneath drum risers and uniformed Marines marched proudly to “Only in America” as the second installment of the Brooks & Dunn Neon Circus and Wild West Show came to a close in Holmdel, N. J., Sunday evening (July 28).

Heralded as much for its eclectic sideshow as for its mainstage lineup, the five-act bill drew a packed house to the PNC Bank Arts Center, about 45 miles south of New York City. Tour host Cledus T. Judd and opening acts Chris Cagle , Trick Pony, Gary Allan and Dwight Yoakam played their sets in jungle-like humidity, but that didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for being part of one of country’s biggest outings.

“I was most impressed with how real they are,” Allan said of spending three months with Brooks & Dunn. “I don’t know what I expected, but when you have that much success you so have the potential to be jerks, and they were just great guys.”

On a tour bus backstage before their closing set, Brooks & Dunn told CMT News that the second leg of the “circus” has been as enjoyable for them as last year’s wild outing with Toby Keith , Montgomery Gentry and Keith Urban .

“I feel about as spent on this tour as I did last year,” Ronnie Dunn said. “It has a different personality, but it’s been just as much fun.”

And apparently it has been as profitable. The 2001 Neon Circus pulled in $14 million with a total attendance of 528,000, according to figures provided to told CMT News last year by Brooks & Dunn’s management. Although 2002’s official numbers aren’t in yet, this year’s 42 dates have outpaced last year in terms of tickets sold, says tour promoter Brian O’Connell. He says choosing the right opening acts to complement Brooks & Dunn was a big part of ensuring a successful sequel.

“We go through each act, who’s going to be compatible, who’s hot and up-and-coming, and then we throw darts,” O’Connell joked. “There’s no magic formula. You have to go on your gut feeling.”

On the last night, Kix Brooks presented each of the supporting artists with a sterling silver cross necklace designed by his friend, Texas artist Bill Worrell. The musicians and crew members also received a tour “yearbook,” which many passed around for autographs backstage.

Pranks were kept to a minimum, but let’s face it — it was a Brooks & Dunn tour, and the twosome are the reigning kings of practical jokes. Crew members sat in lawn chairs onstage reading some, uh, questionable material during Allan’s performance of “Alright Guy,” and midgets down front held up signs reading “we’re your biggest fans” during the Brooks & Dunn set. But Trick Pony frontwoman Heidi Newfield, the only chick on the tour, may have gotten the worst end of the schtick. Allan put a Stetson hatbox onstage during the trio’s set, which Newfield at first refused to open. When she finally kicked the lid off the box, two rather rambunctious garter snakes slithered out onstage, sending Newfield running offstage for cover.

“I hate snakes!” she yelled, as fellow band member Ira Dean tried to retrieve them from under the drum riser. Allan later collected them and set them free in the woods behind the venue.

Pranks, yearbooks and pickup basketball games were just a few of the details that made the Neon Circus tour seem like “being a senior in high school,” according to Judd.

“You just cherish the friendships and you want to spend as much time with these people as you can, because you know at the end of July it’s over with and you can never go back and do it again,” Judd explained.

With the circus tents packed away, Brooks and Ronnie Dunn already are looking toward the next project, their first holiday album. “Hangin’ ’Round the Mistletoe,” which hits stores on Oct. 22, includes the Ronnie Dunn-Jerry Lynn Williams original, “It Won’t Be Christmas Without You,” and Christmas classics like “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

“The real challenge was to take some of these standards that we’re all familiar with and try to move them around and be creative with them without taking them too far,” Dunn said. “Some sound like Perry Como on steroids.”

The duo is also setting its sites on a third go-round for the Neon Circus in 2003.

“I think we will, assuming we can come up with a good plan and something that makes sense and something that will be new and different,” Brooks said. “I don’t think people are totally tired of it yet.”

“It’s impossible to find things that haven’t been done before,” added Dunn. “You just try to reinvent them if you can.”