Country music is, at its core, about connection. There is nothing better than when an artist goes out of their way to make a genuine connection with the folks who believe in them the most – their fans. There are laughter and tears and by the end of the night, something unforgettable has been exchanged. Last week I had the pleasure of sitting in on Reba, Brooks and Dunn: Together in Vegas for several shows. Going on year four of their residency, the trio celebrated shows number 70-76 as they closed out their second to last run for 2018 at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. As soon as the lights dim in the 4,300 seat arena and the audience is serenaded by such voices as Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn to the sound of an old radio dial being tuned in, it is undeniable that something amazing is about to happen. Reba, Brooks & Dunn: Together in Vegas is a remarkable celebration of some of the best artists in country music. What’s better; it’s obvious the trio is having the time of their lives as they laugh, joke, cry, and lay it all out there for fans to join them on the two and a half hour journey through their respective discographies. Rather than a fast paced concert, Together in Vegas runs more like a night at the Opry amongst family members and old friends.
From the moment Reba McEntire is lifted to the stage, flanked by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn to the sound of “Play Something Country,” she embodies the fun loving, rowdy country queen the duo have written about so many times – the country queen we’ve all wanted to be at one time or another. Both McEntire’s gratuitously short, sparkly dress and hilarious reactions to the boys and their lyrics lend themselves to the ever popular trope of the two-stepping, fun loving woman you’d find at a honky tonk with men just like the ones singing next to her. The opening medley, comprised of several of the trio’s best upbeat songs, is enough in theory to get the crowd on their feet. Perhaps it’s the nature of the audience in Vegas, but few stood to dance. That didn’t detract from the energy on stage; the band and three principals are having their own party every night whether the audience joins in or not.
McEntire opens a playful dialogue with the audience by introducing herself as if she were a newcomer who must put a name to her face and iconic red hair. The most refreshing thing about her introduction is that McEntire does this one-on-one as well. She’ll extend a hand and introduce herself, ask how long you’ve been in town, and genuinely wish you well if she has a chance. As perfect foils to the ever-polite redhead, the gentlemen make a point of teasing her about both her demeanor and her wardrobe as they hoop and holler her right off the stage; a clever disguise for one of several costume changes for McEntire. I’m not sure what was more interesting; the show itself or trying to guess what she’d come out in next. Though it’s a far cry from her fully staged dance shows of the 90’s, McEntire keeps the spirit of her innate theatricality in all the right ways with the Together in Vegas performances.
There have been minimal setlist changes throughout the 76 performances of this residency and the show does not change from night to night, but the trio has their stories and jokes timed so perfectly that it doesn’t matter. The comradery between the three is natural and makes for an inviting atmosphere for audiences to laugh right along with them, as if we were in on all the jokes from the beginning. Brooks, after he has warned McEntire not to drink all the insert-liquor-of-the-night-here while she’s backstage changing, launches into many funny memories between he and Dunn, who looks on from stage left as though wishing he were anywhere but there – a smart personality trait for the one who plays the straight man in their comedy routine. As the night progressed party anthems gave way to heartfelt ballads, allowing each of the trio to celebrate their best lyrical and vocal assets. One particular gem is an unlikely duet between Brooks and McEntire as they rest center stage on plain black stools and croon “You’re Going to Miss Me When I’m Gone”, co-written by Brooks, Dunn and fellow songwriter Don Cook for the duo’s 1995 album, Waitin’ on Sundown.
During show number 75, an accomplishment in itself, McEntire reminded every person in the audience of her humanity and generous heart as she commemorated the passing of her father with “Greatest Man I Never Knew.” After a heartfelt introduction about her mama, daddy, and small town upbringing in Chockie, Oklahoma, McEntire made it through two lines of the song before she stopped singing. The pause was palpable as everyone in the room went from confusion at her sudden silence to realization that it wasn’t from forgotten lyrics, but from memories freshly stirred as the anniversary of his death came down heavy on her head. It wasn’t her finest vocal performance; she couldn’t breathe well enough to get through the verses with her usual finesse. That, sometimes, isn’t the point of a performance. In three and a half minutes, with a soft spoken recital of the song, McEntire shared her sixty-three years of goodness, love, family, and loss with four thousand people ready to receive her with open arms.
That is the joy and the power that is Reba McEntire; she is an artist to her core and when she feels something she shares it, openly and genuinely. Having lost the man who raised me three years ago this upcoming January, I felt McEntire’s heartbreak heavy in my own chest. There is nothing so bittersweet as remembering the man who taught you to stand tall and hold your head high and convinced you that you could do anything you wanted to if you worked hard enough as a man who isn’t there anymore. I cried openly in commiseration with her loss and in celebration of both remarkable men, both cowboys from Oklahoma who loved their babies and taught them to keep a stiff upper lip and an open heart. It is a special talent to walk on stage with such vulnerability and come out of it prosperous and powerful in the midst of such sadness. If I never cross paths with Reba McEntire again, I will always be glad for that moment. Honesty and connection are better than perfection, sharing heartbreak isn’t weak, and healing comes in the most unexpected moments. Who’d have thought Reba McEntire would be teaching those lessons in the middle of a theatre in Sin City?
Though it did not come with an introduction or tears quite as sentimental as McEntire’s “Greatest Man,” Dunn certainly matched her artistic prowess as he followed her ballad with “I Believe.” Quite simply, Dunn took the entire audience to church with his stunning rendition of the song. If anyone were in doubt that the man can still sing like an angel, go see their show. You won’t be disappointed; you’ll be astounded at the power behind his vocals. Like the legends they are, the trio leave audiences with a finale they won’t soon forget. All three artists are still very much in their artistic and vocal prime, though Brooks jokes often about their rapidly advancing ages. As an intelligent man, however, Brooks usually leaves McEntire out of those particular jokes. I guess he’d like to keep his head. Special recognition must be given to the band and crew that make this show possible. Not only are the three principals magnificent leaders and artists, but the men and women backing them up are some of the finest musicians and crewman this industry has ever seen. Together, they form a seamless, superior team to deliver an impeccable show every time. By the end of every show they’ve successfully riled the audience to their feet and the entire arena is often dancing, throwing their arms in the air, and making a little noise.
As the satin scrim cloaks the trio and the band plays into darkness to the deafening sound of applause, it might very well be the finale but it’s not the end. Reba, Brooks and Dunn: Together in Vegas has six more performances announced for 2018. For information on tickets, visit Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas. To keep up to date with Reba McEntire, Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn, or Brooks & Dunn, visit their respective websites or follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If you have an opportunity to go to Vegas, don’t miss this show. It is a perfect example of the best of the best loving what they do, and doing it well.