“People often ask me why we broke up,” Kix Brooks said to a rowdy crowd at CMAC Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua, New York, Sunday night, in reference to his 2010 split with performance partner Ronnie Dunn. “You have to remember, we weren’t high school buddies or anything like that. We were thrown together by a record label producer who said, ‘look, you’re both great songwriters, but with the Judds breaking up, country music is in need of a strong duo.’ Because of you people, 20 years later, we had more success than we could have ever imagined. The short answer is, we just needed a break! But now we’re back in action.”
Indeed they were. Brooks & Dunn played to an energetic crowd eager to see the band back together, from older fans who grew up with their music to younger fans sporting Johnny Cash t-shirts who knew just as much, if not more, about the band.
Before they took the stage, however, Canadian country duo High Valley performed a set of high-octane country and bluegrass music. “This may be a stupid question, but who here likes ‘90’s country?,” Brad Rempel asked before he and brother Curtis performed a medley of ‘90s hits, including Joe Diffie’s “Pickup Man,” Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee,” and John Michael Montgomery’s “Be My Baby Tonight,” the first song the duo learned to sing together.
Admist the pollen in the air that made it look like it was snowing inside the venue, the brothers kept on rolling with original hits as well. They opened their set with “I Be U Be” from their 2016 American debut album, Dear Life, which made sure to include plenty of mandolin and dobro solos, a unique and bold move for a new country band these days.
High Valley were also very engaging with the crowd, who, in all honesty, were not in very full attendance at the start of the set. Once the brothers challenged the audience to a dance competition that included the chance to win free merchandise, the seats started to fill in. The brothers were also quite humorous, blending their high-energy show with an equally good showmanship. On a studio recording, the brothers are most reminiscent of a more country-oriented version of Mumford & Sons, but their live show really gives them a chance to show their bluegrass influences.
“Growing up in Northern Alberta, we didn’t have a television or phone, but we had plenty of bluegrass music,” they told the audience before ripping into a bluegrass version of Hank Williams’s “I Saw The Light.” The highlight of their bluegrass medley, however, was their own “Roads We’ve Never Taken.” They also made sure to salute the mothers of the world on a new song, “Your Mama.” Overall, the brothers proved why they’re a new country band worth keeping an eye on, as their stage show was quite excellent, especially for an opening act. (Light 8/10)
As the daylight started to fade and the crowd grew more restless, Brooks & Dunn finally took the stage to perform the first song that started it all for them, “Brand New Man.” Dunn may sing the majority of the duo’s biggest hits, but Brooks brought a heavy dosage of charisma as he engaged with the audience (and showed off his underrated harmonica-playing skills). When it came to their show, no song really stuck out as a surprising omission. Instead, what’s more surprising is that they included essentially all of the few songs Brooks sings lead on, including “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)” which started with a duel led off by Brooks on harmonica before being shoved aside by their two electric guitarists for a fiery match (this critic couldn’t help but grin when saw how much Dunn was enjoying it).
To repeat an earlier point, however, any hit one might have wanted to hear from the duo wouldn’t have likely left the venue feeling unsatisfied. From “Red Dirt Road” to “Neon Moon” to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” the nostalgia level in the air was quite high. The duo’s greatest selling points are evident today in newcomer superstar Luke Combs – a well-woven combination of country music tradition with a raucous, everyday showmanship and songs that, while not always song of the year contenders, necessarily, still tell a tale of everyday life.
One particular highlight was the duo taking notes from the Reboot version of “Hard Workin’ Man” with the Brothers Osborne to parlay that into a stomping, rocking song to get the blood and adrenaline pumping. Dunn didn’t quite engage with the crowd as much as Brooks, but he did take time to share a heartwarming story of how his daughter wanted a horse when she was little. “I always told her I’d get it for her someday, but I never got around to it,” he told the crowd. “Finally, Reba McEntire, who lives right across the street from me, for the record, said, ‘if you don’t get her that horse, I’m going to buy it and send you the bill.’ Dunn then said he “wrote this next song” to help cover those expenses before leading into “Cowgirls Don’t Cry,” a duet that, ironically, features McEntire.
As previously mentioned, there were no glaring omissions from the setlist, but there were more than a few surprise cuts that made their way into the set list. One of those surprises was their stripped down acoustic ballad, “Believe,” a tale of faith and redemption that was the one moment where the audience quietly reflected instead of dancing the night away. Among many other positives, another element of the duo’s continued longevity is striking a balance in their discography. “Believe” was an excellent chance to show the other side of the duo.
The duo’s encore included the fan favorite “My Maria” and the surprising closer, “Only In America,” a tune that, while fine, isn’t one of their biggest hits. But the decision to close on that note made sense when the duo brought troop members out on stage to honor them.
One of the songs the duo sang was “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” and while that was true in 2010, thankfully, the two cowboys were back and better than ever as they ran through all of their greatest hits. A purely great show if I’ve ever seen one. (Decent 8/10)
High Valley setlist:
1. “I Be U Be”
2. “Dear Life”
3. “Pickup Man” (Joe Diffie cover)
4. “Be My Baby Tonight” (John Michael Montgomery cover)
5. “Chattahoochee” (Alan Jackson cover)
6. “Roads We’ve Never Taken”
7. “Single Man”
8. “Your Mama” (new)
9. “I Saw The Light”/”I’ll Fly Away” Bluegrass Medley
10. “She’s With Me”
11. “Make You Mine”
Brooks & Dunn setlist:
1. “Brand New Man”
2. “Red Dirt Road”
3. “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up For Nothing”
4. “Put A Girl In It”
5. “Lost and Found”
6. “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You”
7. “Play Something Country”
8. “Neon Moon”
9. “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
10. “Hard Workin’ Man”
11. “Cowgirls Don’t Cry”
12. “She Likes To Get Out Of Town”
13. “You Can’t Take The Honky Tonk Out Of The Girl”
14. “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)”
16. “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
17. “My Maria”
18. “Only In America”
Author’s note: All quotes are accurate representations of what was said by the respective artists, but are not verbatim.