St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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ABOVE: Country mainstays Brooks & Dunn stage an onslaught of acts to rock the house and surprise the eyes by combining comedy, circus acts, dancing girls and a busload of hot talent.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 14, 2001

Brooks & Dunn headline the Neon Circus and Wild West Show, an extravagant tour that brings some of country's top male talent to the Ice Palace Saturday.

Don't even think about comparing the upcoming Brooks & Dunn Neon Circus and Wild West Show to the George Strait Music Festival, which kicked off its annual tour in Tampa a few months ago.

There is only one similarity: Both shows feature country music.

It's how the music is played that separates performers who stand and strum from those who jump and jam.

"The George Strait tour is a little more traditional," says Toby Keith, who joins Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry, Keith Urban and Cledus T. Judd on the Neon Circus tour. "We're a little more edgy and full of attitude."

Brooks & Dunn Neon Circus and Wild West Show, Saturday at the Ice Palace, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. Doors open for the Neon Circus Midway at 3 p.m. Show starts at 6:30. Tickets $28 and $38 at the Ice Palace box office (813) 301-2500 or Ticketmaster (813) 287-8844.

Though the country music audience is shrinking and record sales are flat, there are enough fans out there to keep both types of country going strong. But it's unlikely that a diehard George Strait fan is also a diehard Keith Urban fan.

"Keith Urban is a tremendous guitar player, and he rocks the house," Toby Keith says. "Montgomery Gentry has a real Southern rock thing going on, and mine is all attitude. It's two completely different shows."

Propelled by the strong sales and good reviews of Brooks & Dunn's latest CD, Steers & Stripes, the Neon Circus and Wild West Show brings a chart-topping lineup to the Ice Palace Saturday night. Every performer in the show has Top 20 singles and albums on Billboard's country charts, and all of them are known for offering up a little rebel-rousing.

"I'll tell you what, if there's anything boring about this show, I have not seen it yet," said Eddie Montgomery of Montgomery Gentry. "It is rockin' from the opening to the end."

Not only is Neon Circus and Wild West Show a mouthful to say, it's an eyeful to view. The stage show incorporates pyrotechnics, confetti cannons and huge video screens -- the kind of theatrics more common to rock than country.

"It's all about energy," Ronnie Dunn says.
[Publicity Photos]
Toby Keith, coming off the success of his How Do You Like Me Now effort, says he’s content to provide more of the same musical attitude.

"These guys are high energy, and that's stuff that we really want out there with us. It's important to keep the crowd up until that last act comes on. A lot of guys jump out there and they try to do it but can't pull it off," Dunn said on the phone from his Nashville home.

Unlike the Strait tour, there aren't any women on the bill.

"We wanted this one all-testosterone, and we'll take the hit there," Dunn said. "It was a reaction to the Dixie Chicks, Shania and others. Everyone was saying that things had been turned over to the girls. It was no more than a marketing angle to walk in and go 'Okay, here go the boys.' "

Dunn -- he's the taller, hatless half of Brooks & Dunn -- got the idea of adding circus entertainment to the show after seeing a performance of Cirque du Soleil, the theatrical blend of circus arts and street performance.

The "neon" is a reference to the signs found at honky-tonks. Brooks & Dunn originally were going to call it the "Hillbilly Circus" but thought better of it.

"We're aware that things can bog down with any show, so we try to keep it visually and musically stimulating, and that's what all that circus stuff is about," Dunn said. "It's more to keep people up and awake. Having these guys come out in the audience and kind of mess with you works real well for us. This is the most successful combination of acts and chemistry that we've had out ever."

Was putting Montgomery Gentry, a new act that swiped last year's Country Music Association Vocal Duo of the Year award from Brooks & Dunn, in the lineup a case of keeping their friends close but their enemies closer?

"That's a pretty good theory," Dunn said.

But it's just that -- a theory. In reality, Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry have been firmly in the friend category since Day One. The duo brought along moonshine on the tour.

"It smells like something you squeeze out of an old sock," Dunn said. "It's a Kentucky good ol' boy slam if you don't at least take a sip. So I held my nose and did it. I halfway spit it out, and Eddie looked up -- dead serious -- and said 'Yeah, hoss, that jar there's a little early.' "

On the phone from his Kentucky farm, Eddie Montgomery confessed that it has been a wild tour for him.

"What I love is there's no what I call stiff shirts. We hang out. We'll pick up acoustic guitars and jam, or we might be out in the parking lot throwing a football or whatever."

Montgomery, whose brother is fellow country singer John Michael Montgomery, says his band's Southern rock-tinged country is geared for a specific audience.

"We don't want to try to please everybody. If you go after that, you're wrong. We want to go after what we feel is our heart and what we think is real," he said. "Our fans are the people who work 80 hours a week for a paycheck that's already half gone when they get it."
He may look rock ’n’ roll, but Australian Keith Urban is all country when he opens the Neon Circus and Wild West Show.

Montgomery Gentry's latest CD Carrying On is gaining momentum with the hit She Couldn't Change Me.

Even though Toby Keith has a new CD coming out in August called Pull My Chain, his latest effort, How Do You Like Me Now, is still on the charts.

"I feel pretty comfortable with my niche," Keith says. "The most success I've had through my whole career was me being me when they would let me. But man, we just run into so many (music industry) obstacles, barriers and idiots along the way."

Urban has had his share of obstacles, too. Music Row didn't immediately jump out and embrace the blond Australian.

"I tried to explain to people that I grew up playing country. It's not something that I snuck into my bio," Urban said on the phone from a Nashville studio. "Looking the way I did, they would write me off as being a person who probably wanted to play rock 'n' roll but couldn't, so cashed in on country. That was more frustrating than anything."

Urban's 30-minute set opens the show. In between the acts Judd, the Weird Al Yankovic of country music, performs his parody songs and serves as the concert's emcee.

And if the music, the pyrotechnics and the comedy don't grab you, Toby Keith has another ingredient: go-go dancers.

He says it's his little gift to the men in the audience who have been hauled to the show by their wives and girlfriends.

"They just sit out there with their arms folded while everyone else is out there rocking. It's like 10 percent of the crowd is saying, I could care less about this guy. So, I thought, I'm going let them come out and shake."

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