Music review: Kenny Chesney at FedEx Field

June 5, 2011

Think of Kenny Chesney as the anti-Bono.

Times are tough. People are suffering. The world has many problems. “But we don’t gotta solve a single one of ’em tonight,” Chesney declared Saturday night at FedEx Field, on his triumphant return to the touring circuit.

The country superstar does his requisite share of offstage charity work, but onstage he’s about providing one thing: escape.

No, that wasn’t a guilty conscience you were feeling — that was a beach ball hitting the side of your head.

When the lights went down and Chesney’s band began chugging, the man himself was nowhere to be found. “Where is he?” went thousands of circling heads. (Hint: Look for chiseled biceps and a sleeveless shirt.)

After a few bars of “Live a Little” (sample lyric: “Take some time / waste it on number one”), Chesney sprang up from the tangle of audiovisual equipment in the round, suspended in a kind of ski-lift chair.

And seemingly from the moment he touched down on the stage proper to belt out “Reality” (sample lyric: “Sometimes life ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be / So let’s take a chance and live this fantasy”), Chesney was an indefatigable motion machine for the next two hours.

There was, after all, lost time to make up for.

Chesney, 43, took a sabbatical last year, producing, directing and narrating the documentary “The Color Orange: The Condredge Holloway Story,” whose namesake, a childhood hero of Chesney’s, was the first black quarterback to start for a Southeastern Conference college football team (the University of Tennessee).

The documentary was his second for ESPN, which had already been impressed by Chesney’s executive-production of another pigskin pic, “Boys of Fall.”

But with the economy as soft as it is, Chesney isn’t relying on pent-up demand to bring the bodies. On this tour, dubbed “Goin’ Coastal,” singers Uncle Kracker and Billy Currington perform early evening warm-ups and, at stadiums like FedEx, the Zac Brown Band co-headlines with Chesney.

According to Paula Hinston, who promotes Chesney’s shows in NFL stadiums, Saturday’s gig drew a respectable 52,400 to the cavernous Redskins park.

Typical of outdoor productions, the sound at FedEx was a spotty affair. On the field, where, despite the ushering staff’s best efforts at human wrangling, people outnumbered chairs, it was a muddy wash of midrange guitars and buried backbeat, with Chesney’s voice sailing above and beyond you. Those in first-level seats received a just-right balance of volume and clarity.

As if to compensate for a dodgy mix, Chesney frequently spent up-close-and-personal quality time at the edges of a jutting catwalk, where scrums of fans fought for high-fives and eye contact with “K.C.”

Fans amplified every line of the refrain of the season-appropriate anthem “Summertime.” Loose and breezy rockers such as “Coastal” and “Beer in Mexico” evinced Chesney’s non-football passions: cocktails and tropical climates. “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” did the same, only with a highly agreeable, trad-country-in-the-Caribbean vibe.

“I Go Back,” about music’s time-marking power, served as Chesney’s raison d’etre, with its nostalgia-inducing evocations of the “smell of an old gym floor,” “Sunday chicken after church” and canoodling with first loves by the levee.

As Chesney sees it, his job is to make you feel young again — or, relatedly, to paint pictures of leisure, which, come adulthood, is a scarce commodity.

Chesney’s main set hurtled through surefire singalongs such as “Out Last Night,” “When the Sun Goes Down” and “How Forever Feels” and culminated in “The Boys of Fall,” an ode to football replete with epic-sounding double-guitar harmonies.

But those who beat a traffic-avoiding retreat missed a massively entertaining encore that ended with a rip-snorting cover of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

First, Currington joined Chesney for the beloved “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” Then the Zac Brown Band helped turn the evening into something closer to magical.

Brown, like a mythical shape-shifter, led Chesney and company through snippets of Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight” and “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and somehow managed to smelt Steve Miller’s “Space Cowboy” with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and Sublime’s “Caress Me Down.”

After Brown effortlessly spat out the latter’s rapid-fire lyrics, Chesney, happily sharing the spotlight, no doubt spoke for everyone — “Do that again!”

Galupo is a freelance writer.

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