Upstaged by the New Year, Chesney Still Has the Last Word

Kenny Chesney left the stage to await his inevitable encore call about eight minutes before 2003 arrived Wednesday morning at Nashville’s Gaylord Convention Center. By the time he returned to the spotlight, the new year was nipping at his heels and stealing his thunder. The singer barely had time to strike up the band before the balloons dropped and the confetti exploded. From that point on, the show was effectively over, even though Chesney continued to perform for another 10 minutes.

Apart from this one gaffe, Chesney’s New Year’s Eve performance — which also served to kick off his Margaritas & Senoritas tour — was everything his fans hoped for. Most of the audience stood for the length of the show. Many carried signs. One woman brandished and alternately displayed three of them: “We Love Kenny,” “You’re a Big Star” and “Marry Me, Kenny C./Wanna Know How Forever Feels?”

Montgomery Gentry and Keith Urban opened the festivities. Urban told the crowd that he had almost been deported to his native Australia the day before. The near miss may have accounted for the euphoria evident in every song he did.

Chesney made his arrival on stage at 10:55 p.m. via an elevator that took him to the top tier of his girder-like multi-level set. Dressed in a black cowboy hat, sleeveless tight-fitting shirt and equally snug denims, the BNA Records artist opened with the nostalgic “Live Those Songs.” He returned to this backward-looking theme throughout his set with such pieces as “Young,” “Never Gonna Feel Like That Again,” “Back Where I Come From” and “I Remember.” In his fondness for tunes about teen years and small-town life, Chesney cultivates a field first plowed by the Statler Brothers.

The sense that Chesney was sharing vivid autobiographical moments with the audience was enhanced by the giant segmented video screen at the back of his set, pulsating with lyric-specific clips. Chesney worked hard for the love his fans showed him, singing a lot and speaking comparatively little. Because his catalog of hits is so extensive, he resorted at one point to a medley to crowd a few more in. Although his voice is firm, sure and recognizable, it may be his uncanny sense of song that most accounts for his continuing popularity.

Just before he made his first exit, Chesney invited the Georgia Satellites’ Dan Baird onstage to join him in his cover of the Satellites’ 1986 rave, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” He closed with “The Good Stuff” and, after three minutes of applause, encored with “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems.” He was just getting into “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” when the new year hit and the band had to make a torturous segue into “Auld Lang Syne.” This brought the backstage people onstage where they milled about long enough to slow the show’s momentum. Even so, Chesney and the band played a few more minutes, wrapping up the evening with John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane.” For several minutes afterward, the star moved along the length of the broad stage, touching hands and signing balloons, T-shirts and other artifacts of worship before boarding the elevator that returned him to the underworld.

Despite Troy Gentry’s near-disabling laryngitis, raucous Montgomery Gentry was also a big crowd-pleaser. The duo, which has apparently set its sights on those who find Hank Williams Jr. too cerebral, worked a stage bracketed by giant Jim Bean bottle blowups. Blasting their way in with “All Night Long,” MG kept the house rocking with “Bad for Good” and then lowered the decibels (although not significantly) for “Lonely and Gone” and “Scarecrow.”

Eddie Montgomery’s hard work and unwavering determination to connect with the fans at the most visceral level was endearing, but his incessant yowls of “Are you ready to party?” must have stirred homicidal fancies in more than one head.

Warming to the party theme, Montgomery picked up a cup from a riser, hoisted it to the crowd and announced, “I ain’t never not drank on New Year’s Eve, and this ain’t gonna change a damn thing.” Well, who could argue with that? Introducing “My Town,” Montgomery blustered, “I promise you one thing: Nobody’s gonna come into our town and take it over, ‘cause we’ll kick their ass!” Reassured by this stand against impending civic disruption, the revelers roared.

Montgomery Gentry rolled on with the truculent “Hell Yeah,” “She Couldn’t Change Me” and “Hillbilly Shoes” and encored with the 1979 Blackfoot hit, “Train, Train.”

Opener Urban turned his set into a showcase of guitar pyrotechnics, even as he essayed such contemplative matter as “But for the Grace Of God,” “Rainin’ on Sunday” and “Your Everything.” Wearing a Bocephus T-shirt and jeans with “Happy” and “New Year” painted down the front of the legs, he started with “Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me” and drove on to “Where the Blacktop Ends.”

Midway in, Urban paused and said, “I’ve got to give a quick thanks to the INS — that’s the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I was this close to getting sent back to Australia last night.” While he didn’t give the details of his plight, he beamed at having averted it. He delivered nine songs in his 50-minute program, stretching some three-minute pieces to near twice that length. The crowd was with him all the way.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect that a New Year’s Eve show will have its quiet moments. This one surely didn’t. Even when the three acts were doing love songs, the approach was more swaggering than subtle. But if keeping the pot stirred is a fair measure of achievement, then the event was a resounding success.

Set List

Keith Urban

“Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me”
“Where the Blacktop Ends”
“Rainin’ on Sunday”
“But for the Grace of God”
“Somebody Like You”
“Your Everything”
“Jeans On”
“You Look Good in My Shirt”
“It’s a Love Thing”

Montgomery Gentry

“All Night Long”
“Bad for Good”
“Lonely and Gone”
“Ramblin’ Man”
“Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm”
“Cold One Comin’ On”
“My Town”
“Hell Yeah”
“She Couldn’t Change Me”
“Hillbilly Shoes”
“Train, Train”

Kenny Chesney

“Live Those Songs”
“How Forever Feels”
“Never Gonna Feel Like That Again”
“Big Star”
“What I Need to Do”
Medley: “She’s Got It All,” “Fall in Love,” “That’s Why I’m Here,” “I Lost It”
“I Remember”
“Back Where I Come From”
“Don’t Happen Twice”
“Keep Your Hands to Yourself”
“The Good Stuff”
“No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem”
“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”/”Auld Lang Syne”
“Life’s Been Good”
“Jack & Diane”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to