Brooks & Dunn, country music's dominant duo in the '90s, may have toned down the honky-tonk factor on their new album, "Tight Rope." But they revved it up at Saturday's Nissan Pavilion concert, opening with a 100-proof "Honky Tonk Truth" on a clever set that replicated the opened back of an oversize diesel-powered pickup truck apparently parked in front of Western buttes. This allowed for a variety of evocative background vistas--sometimes dry desert heat, sometimes cool starlit panoramas--as the two raced through their catalogue of hits, alternating between raucous chug-alongs and aching ballads, with Ronnie Dunn's virile vocals generally front and center.
Whether essaying the late-blooming but insistent reform of "Brand New Man" and "A Man This Lonely," plaintively examining the all-too-common tribulations of "Husbands and Wives" or salting his "How Long Gone" sorrow at the "Neon Moon," Dunn convincingly tapped into deep wellsprings of sorrow. He even managed to find the country ache at the core of John Waite's 1984 pop hit "Missing You," underscoring its universal theme of loss and longing.
Perhaps to balance the emotional scales, Dunn also shone on the clap-happy exhilaration of the soaring "My Maria," a cover of B.W. Stevenson's '70s hit, and briefly detoured from the personal with the bravado of his rousing blue-collar anthem "Hard Workin' Man."
Kix Brooks, a far less interesting, and much more limited, singer, had fewer showcases but delivered them with an engaging intensity, particularly the petulant protest "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," the Jimmy Buffett-ish "Lost and Found" and "Mama Don't Get Dressed Up for Nothing," and "South of Santa Fe," a Marty Robbins-style effort to reconnect western and country.
Still, it was Saturday night, and Sunday morning seemed a long way off when Brooks & Dunn turned to their honky-tonk reserves for such rollicking crowd-pleasers as "Boot Scootin' Boogie" (complete with inflatable boots), "Little Miss Honky Tonk," the new "Beer Thirsty" (rocking much harder live than on the album) and the inevitable finale, "Rock My World (Little Country Girl)," featuring more fun with inflatables.