CINCINNATI — Necessity may be the mother of invention, but Brooks & Dunn are the kings of reinvention. At the Cincinnati stop of their Deuces Wild tour on Saturday night (Aug. 13), they matched the bid of past tours by still relying on special effects but raised the stakes by making it look easy. In other words, they offered a rare treat — a high-tech, low-key night of country music.
Brooks & Dunn reached the pinnacle of show-stopping concerts with the overwhelming Neon Circus & Wild West Show tour a few years ago, offering fans as many carnival acts as they did musical opening acts. This time around, there are almost no distractions — pretty much just a black-and-white hot air balloon and two huge inflatable cowgirls. As a stagehand taped a set list to the floor, it was unclear whether a lone guitarist was tuning his instrument or warming up the crowd. One by one, the rest of the band casually shuffled on stage, and even Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn strolled out without any booming, whiz-bang announcement.
A massive panoramic LCD screen glowed behind them, giving the unusual sensation of watching an awesome concert and a top-notch live DVD at the same time. As they launched with “Red Dirt Road,” the screen behind them pictured a red dirt road trailing behind them. (Kids who grew up riding in the backwards-facing backseat of a station wagon suddenly grew nostalgic — or perhaps carsick.) On “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl,” they drew inspiration from the walls of the dive bars on Nashville’s Lower Broadway yet incorporated live footage from ladies like June Carter, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette to enhance the lyric. The striking visuals changed according to each song, yet never rehashed their music videos.
They also avoided playing second fiddle to technology, drawing on a wealth of material, with only one new song. Given their extensive string of successful singles, they had to cut some songs (“The Long Goodbye,” “How Long Gone” and “Hard Workin’ Man” were notably absent), but Dunn still aces “My Maria,” “Brand New Man” and especially “Neon Moon.” And with newer hits like “It’s Getting Better All the Time” and “Play Something Country,” no matter what songs B&D dealt the audience, it would likely be a winning hand.
The first half of the show could just as easily been called Jokers Wild, with Big & Rich and the Warren Brothers each warming up the crowd. Just before Big & Rich came on, an extremely loud burst of noise startled everybody in the crowd, sending at least one cup of beer flying into the air. Big & Rich screened some sort of film, but it was still too bright outside to see anything. However, it was impossible to miss the duo’s shenanigans once they arrived on stage.
Sitting there and watching them horse around, it’s tough not to admire their determination to make it in the music business. You can imagine them scratching their chins a few years ago, saying things like “Maybe if we got a midget, a spaceship and a guitar that says ‘LOVE EVERYBODY’ on the back of it …” No matter what you think of them, the crowd was really into it, and the enthusiasm is contagious. Even if you change the dial whenever “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” comes on, this thought may cross your mind: “Now, why am I singing along if this song irritates me so much?”
Big & Rich are nothing if not evangelistic, so it’s no surprise that pyrotechnics were as prevalent as the preaching. (“No one can take away your sparkle! No one can take away your shine!” Big Kenny testified.) Cowboy Troy, who wasn’t advertised on the ticket, was wise enough to wear a personalized Cincinnati Reds jersey onstage. Instantly bringing the crowd to its feet, it could be argued that the only 6-foot-5 black rapping cowboy in country music received louder applause than either Big & Rich or the Warren Brothers.
While the opening acts did not have enough hits to fill even a short set, they stretched their material by often singing the last verse one more time or pulling out the old “first the guys sing, then the girls sing” trick. The Warren Brothers kept asking the crowd to stand up, but it was their young sons who were getting the workout, carrying guitars on and off the stage. With barely a half-hour to perform, the wisecracking duo wisely avoided acting ridiculous, instead proving themselves to be an entertaining band worthy of their spot on a big tour. Like good gamblers, they apparently know when to hold ’em, and they know when to fold ’em.