ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The tickets, souvenir T-shirts and blinking lights over the stage declared this as the "Last Rodeo." But if you studied Ronnie Dunn's face, body language or between-song patter, you'd swear that this was Brooks & Dunn's D-I-V-O-R-C-E tour.
It was only two weeks into the nearly four-month Last Rodeo tour when Brooks & Dunn took the stage Friday night (May 14) at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center for their Minnesota farewell.
For two hours, B&D and their top-notch band thrilled 15,468 party-loving fans with an endless string of hits (with a couple of obscurities mixed in for the hard-core).
This show may have had fewer bells and whistles than B&D's beloved Neon Circus and Cowboy Town tours of the previous decade, but there were the usual red, white and blue streamers during "Only in America," a nonstop flurry of big-screen video images and those giant B&D steer heads, including one on the drum kit that turned back and forth.
What there wasn't was a lot of interaction between Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. While Brooks was his usual smiling, live-wire, let's-get-the-party-started self, Dunn seemed subdued and kept his distance from his performing partner.
The long, tall singer in a black shirt was in good voice, his high tenor convincing on ballads like "Never Forgive My Heart" and boogie rockers like "Put a Girl in It." Guitar-toting Brooks took the occasional lead vocal turn, igniting the revelers with the Georgia Satellites-like "Mama Don't Get Dressed Up for Nothing" and pouring passion into the plaintive "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone" while stationed at the end of a stage runway as Dunn stood in the shadows at the back of the stage. This song could have been the theme of the show. It certainly was the night's emotional high point.
While Dunn had little to say all evening, Brooks spoke at length about the occasion. Calling Dunn his best friend, he explained how people compare them to a married couple. "But things going on in a marriage don't go on between us," he said.
Marriage did come up in another context. A fan named Darren apparently wanted to say something important to his gal Marie. So Brooks invited them onstage for what turned into an awkward moment. One, there was no microphone for Darren so Brooks, wearing a headset mic, had to repeat every line that Darren, crouched on one knee, uttered to Marie. Two, the dude didn't even proffer a ring. Nonetheless, she said "yes" and Brooks said, "You'll get to do that once. You make it work. Good luck to you."
Maybe that couple will, over time, amass a collection of keepsake videos and photos like Brooks & Dunn featured on the big video screens during "The Last Rodeo," a tune from Brooks' 1989 solo album. Geez, those guys sure had some Bon Jovi-big hair back in the day.
After 20 years and 20 No. 1 hits, Brooks & Dunn's marriage arranged by an Arista Records executive is coming to an end. Dunn is making noise about a solo career, and Brooks joked at the ACM Awards that he's thinking of pulling a Brett Favre and reconsidering the decision.
In St. Paul, when Dunn joined Brooks at the end of the runway for an intimate, acoustic-oriented set, fans were reminded how a twosome that started as the Hall & Oates of country (a tall lead singer and a slightly shorter guy with a dark moustache) had evolved into country's biggest and most decorated duo. The chemistry between the two was obvious during "How Long Gone," "Red Dirt Road" and "Believe," after which Brooks gave one of those man-love fist bumps to Dunn's back.
Then they headed back to the main stage for the hard-charging "Hard Working Man," the moody and melancholy "Neon Moon" and a blast of crowd-invigorating hits: the rollicking "Rock My World," the festive "Only in America" (featuring four U.S. military men marching onstage) and the ebullient "My Maria" (during which the duo exchanged one of those classic buddy-act glances on the final chorus).
Brooks & Dunn encored with a one-two punch from their debut album -- their first hit and then their biggest hit. "Brand New Man" found them fist-bumping one another on the shoulder at song's end. After "Boot Scootin' Boogie," it was time for a "Farewell Minnesota" high-five. Dunn was done and quickly scooted away while Brooks, who'd donned a Minnesota Wild hockey jersey for the encore, stayed onstage to sign autographs one last time.
Opening the concert were the unadvertised Tyler Dickerson, a John Rich protégé, and arena-ready Jason Aldean, who not only put some hip-hop rhythms and dirty rock guitar into his lovably loud hits but closed his 45-minute set with Kid Rock's rambunctious sing-along "Cowboy."
Jon Bream has covered music for the Minneapolis Star Tribune since 1975. He is author of the recent books Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time and Neil Diamond Is Forever: The Illustrated Story of the Man and His Music.