ST. PAUL, Minn. — Even though Kenny Chesney’s torn ligaments in his right ankle delayed the start of his Somewhere in the Sun tour by two weeks, he was clearly at full strength during show No. 4 on Saturday night (March 26) at the sold-out Xcel Energy Center.
He arrived like a king, sitting on a swing, flying over the crowd from the back of the arena to the stage. (“I felt like I was in the Matrix movie,” he told CMT.com after the show.) Onstage, Chesney ran around with abandon and danced like a boot-scootin’ fool for 1¾ hours.
“Once I hear the crowd, and the adrenaline starts, I don’t think about my ankle,” he said in an interview, adding that he has his ankle taped like a football player. “It’s a little tender here and there, but it’s doing good.”
The adrenaline was in extra supply Saturday because it was his birthday. Before he injured his ankle while carrying luggage — in his flip-flops — down the steps of his Caribbean home, he had expected to spend his big day at a party at his grandma’s in east Tennessee with other relatives, some of whom have birthdays at the same time of year. “They’re having a party — minus one,” he said before going onstage.
Not that Chesney was complaining. He had a party with 17,429 wild revelers in St. Paul and “my best friends in the whole world” — four of his high school buddies — as well as opening acts Uncle Kracker and Gretchen Wilson. The fans were clearly there for the party, wearing silly pointed hats and holding homemade signs, including one misspelled one — “HAPPY 37 BIRTHDAY KENNEY” — that stretched across an entire row.
“Kiss me, it’s my birthday,” begged the sign of one woman, who was standing in the pit created by the giant T-shaped runway. “It’s my birthday, too,” Chesney pointed out before planting a kiss on the woman’s forehead.
Wearing a Sammy Hagar “Birthday Bash 2004” sleeveless T-shirt, Chesney started the concert in overdrive with “Keg in the Closet” and didn’t downshift until his fifth number, “Woman With You.” During the 23-song set, the emphasis was on the high-energy side of his repertoire (“Big Star,” “Young,” “She’s Got It All,” Conway Twitty’s “Love to Lay You Down”). During “Back Where I Come From,” he showed videos of his hometown, Luttrell, Tenn., and then footage of landmarks of St. Paul and Minneapolis, including the Mall of America, First Avenue (the nightclub Prince made famous in Purple Rain) and the familiar house from Mary Tyler Moore’s 1970s TV series.
Chesney went solo acoustic, singing “Old Blue Chair” while sitting in that weathered rocker he had shipped from his house in the British Virgin Islands. (The chair has its own traveling road case built especially for the tour.). His other noteworthy prop represented the other extreme — 5-foot tall Marshall guitar amps stacked on top of each other.
To be sure, Chesney rocked, with as many as five guitarists sharing the stage on a couple of tunes. As he has done on past tours, he covered a John Mellencamp hit. After thrilling the high-spirited crowd with the opening chorus to “Hurts So Good,” he introduced Gretchen Wilson. As she took a bow, the band stopped, and then she suddenly eased into “Happy Birthday” a la Marilyn Monroe cooing to President John F. Kennedy.
“Happy birthday, Mr. Chesney,” she purred and then handed him an industrial-sized tropical drink. They each took a big, long gulp — and then finished “Hurts So Good” but not the big gulp. Light green with lots of ice cubes in a long-stem container, the celebrative cocktail looked as if it could be a margarita or a daiquiri. “I’m not sure myself,” Chesney said later, “but it was good.”
Some of Chesney’s sidemen got a gulp as did Uncle Kracker, who joined the headliner for “When the Sun Goes Down” and Kid Rock’s “Cowboy.” (Yes, the CMA’s reigning entertainer of the year can rap). The birthday boy dragged his four pals in chinos and dress shirts to the stage for Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and before you could say “sha-la-la,” the birthday bash had turned into a frat party singalong.
Except for “Old Blue Chair,” Chesney didn’t do any songs from his latest album, the chart-topping Be As You Are: Songs From an Old Blue Chair. He ended the evening with a rollicking, fall-to-his-knees rendition of “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” signed several autographs from the stage and then picked up that special birthday libation and toasted the crowd.
Like Chesney, Wilson, that brown-eyed, redneck woman, blurred the lines between rock and country during her opening set. She moved from a medley of Heart’s “Straight On” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” to her own “Redneck Woman” and “Here for the Party.” Uncle Kracker also resurrected some rock oldies, Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone” and Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” which Kracker remade into a hit a couple of years ago. And his own hit, “Follow Me,” with its references to island music and AC/DC, was a big crowd-pleaser.
After the concert, the birthday boy was flying high.
“We had so much fun tonight,” Chesney gushed in an interview. “I told the guys that’s the most fun we’ve had in four or five years. It was ’anything goes’ — and anything did go. No matter what road we took, the audience took it and then went along.”
Jon Bream is music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.