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Brooks & Dunn Bring "Circus" to Town
Duo's Second Date Brings Them to Nashville
Brand new men? Well, almost.

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn have retooled their live show -- called "Brooks & Dunn's Neon Circus & Wild West Show" -- with high-tech video screens, sideshow performers, neon-edged risers, confetti cannons and a large, metallic steer skull. When the curtain rose Sunday night (April 29) in Nashville, the second stop of their 60-city tour, the near-capacity audience at AmSouth Amphitheatre got quite an eyeful.

A clown stalked across the stage on stilts. Two jugglers tossed flaming sticks back and forth. A fire-eater enjoyed his evening meal. A trick roper twirled a lariat, and a fellow dressed like Buffalo Bill Cody appeared to drop suddenly from the ceiling. A huge,
inflated, red-white-and-blue steer skull towered over everything, then out strolled Brooks and Dunn, launching into "Only in America," an anthem-like selection from their new album, Steers & Stripes. At song's end, the large screen at the rear of the stage sported an image of an American flag, the stars replaced by white steer skulls.

Former Entertainers of the Year, as voted by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, the duo are acting like they're hungry to reclaim the honor. Short of that, they must want to take back the award for Vocal Duo of the Year, a prize they owned for eight years until Montgomery Gentry -- one of three acts on the tour's undercard -- out-polled them in 2000.

Without music to support their high-end production, however, Brooks & Dunn would risk coming off as bombastic, but a No. 1 single, "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You," and a catalog of hits dating back to their first, "Brand New Man," in 1991, made for a crowd-pleasing show all around.

Most of the time, the duo stayed amped up, leaning into hard-chargers such as "My Next Broken Heart" or "Hard Workin' Man." Midway through, with the lights down, they sat together for a short acoustic segment; Dunn did Roger Miller's "Husbands and Wives," then left Brooks on his own to perform "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone." Brooks dedicated the song to late NASCAR hero Dale Earnhardt, who once told Brooks it was his favorite.

"Neon Moon" became a moody set piece. A portion of Dunn's blue guitar lit up in a crescent shape, then a camera transferred the image to the many video screens in the darkened house. At one point in the evening Dunn picked up a video camera and turned it on the audience then encouraged them to go to the group's Web site to see themselves there.

Every act on the bill remarked on the audience's party-happy mood. Keith Urban, staring into the setting sun, opened with a six-song set that included his recent hits, "But for the Grace of God," "Love Thing" and "Your Everything." He also included an altered version of the Charlie Daniels' classic, "Devil Went Down to Georgia," in which "Johnny" is a guitar slinger rather than a fiddle player. The song allowed Urban to show off his skills as an instrumentalist, but it also required that he sing the line, "Johnny, resin up your pick."

Montgomery Gentry, "cocked and ready to rock," sampled their gold-certified debut album, Tattoos & Scars and its followup, Carrying On. A plane overhead pulled a banner touting the Tuesday (May 1) release date of the new set. The duo started their performance with the title track from the upcoming album and did their best throughout to live up to their reputation as country's new rowdy bunch.

To begin his set, Toby Keith emerged from an oil field shack stationed in front of a large backdrop
picturing a barren expanse populated with oil derricks. To offset his fairly stoic delivery, Keith enlisted two hyperkinetic female dancers who changed costumes to echo the themes of his songs. After doffing their oil field-appropriate hardhats, they wore cowboy hats for "Should've Been a Cowboy" and a new song, "I'm Just Talking
About Tonight," and they put on cheerleader's outfits for "How Do You Like Me Now?!" "I want all the fellas in the house to bark at my
girls one time," Keith said after "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action," and he polled the audience for rednecks before "You Ain't
Much Fun." For his encore, Keith chose John Mellencamp's "Authority Song."

Though not quite the extravaganza touted by pre-tour hype, "Brooks & Dunn's Neon Circus & Wild West Show" did not disappoint. Clocking in at over four hours, the show also featured comic relief from host Cledus T. Judd (who did spoofs such as "How Do You Milk a Cow?!" and "My Cellmate Thinks I'm Sexy"). There were midway exhibits such as The Honky-Tonk Hall of Fame, which included a pair of briefs purportedly worn by Elvis Presley at his military physical and a piece of the plane in which Patsy Cline died. AC/DC cover band Hayseed Dixie played the Birmingham and Nashville dates, taking the stage briefly prior to Urban.

The Brooks & Dunn tour, sponsored in part by CMT, continues into September. The duo will appear May 9 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the 36th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards.
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