Editor’s note: Kenny Chesney performed early Friday morning (June 13) in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza during the Today show’s summer concert series. Most of us have never attended one of these free outdoor performances, so we asked New York-based journalist Jim Allen to provide blow-by-blow description of what it takes to be a face in the crowd.
If it weren’t for the light breeze that’s keeping the temperature from getting too unbearable, this unassuming crowd of faithful, bleary-eyed Kenny Chesney admirers could easily turn ugly at a moment’s notice. The fresh-faced group of teens in matching orange T-shirts emblazoned with the name of some do-gooding organization or other. The fortysomething parents thumbing through complimentary hotel copies of USA Today while shepherding their brood, who in turn are holding up the “#1 Kenny Chesney Fan” signs Sirius satellite radio has been passing around. They’ve all turned out for one of the Today show’s early morning, first-come/first-serve free outdoor concerts in the middle of New York’s Rockefeller Plaza. Since this one happens to feature the aforementioned country superstar, there are currently more Southern accents and un-ironic cowboy hats per square foot on this midtown Manhattan block than there have probably ever been before.
The line stretches around three sides of the block that encapsulates Rockefeller Center, lining the east, north and south sides with hopeful, (presumably) hardcore Chesneyites. The lucky folks at the front of the queue arrived at 4 a.m. for the privilege of getting closer to their hero than they’d ever be in a concert setting. The line moves forward in maddeningly miniscule increments, the crowd advancing clump by clump, about five feet at a time. A strapping young man in a checked shirt and straw hat betrays a Midwestern twang while wondering aloud if he’ll actually get in to see the Man of the Morning, and he’s thoughtfully reassured by his mates in waiting. Rockefeller Center shills wander up and down the line, handing out coupons for their observation deck to the captive audience.
The fatigue is just starting to show on some of the faithful. Back muscles are pulled tight in stretching motions, long yawns can be heard from far down the line, and we’re still two block-lengths away from the site of the performance. As we finally round the corner of Lacoste and American Girl Place (that is, 49th Street and Fifth Avenue), a hefty gent in a “Some Beach!” shirt looks longingly at the still-closed TGI Friday’s. A bruiser in a red Dale Earnhardt Jr. tee is grumpily texting someone a progress update. A weary-looking man offering flyers from a nearby eatery to the passersby shouts, “I’ll be here all day.”
We’ve rounded the final corner onto 48th Street, and the promised land is in sight. As the subway grates blow up unwelcome gusts of warm air, we can hear the band warming up in the distance. We get closer to the sonic source, but the music is suddenly obscured by the overwhelming rumble of a Chock Full o’ Nuts truck dispensing coffee to the morning crowd.
We can hear the guitarist teasing the melody of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” before the band launches into the season-appropriate Chesney hit, “Summertime.” Oh, no, they’re starting early, and we’re still not within sight of the stage! A palpable anxiety seizes the would-be audience as we hear whoops and cheers from those who’ve already gotten close enough to see what’s going on.
Luck is being a lady this morning, and the last leg of the line’s journey accelerates at an unprecedented pace. Before we know it, a string of security guards usher us between the portable railings and into the plaza, where several hundred people are squeezed into a space roughly 200 feet by 300 feet. Kids are hiked up on parents’ shoulders, and camera phones are everywhere, raised aloft and snapping away, which is pretty much the only way to get anything approximating a clear view of the stage. The sight lines are arranged to accommodate the TV cameras first and the audience a distant second. Chesney, looking casual in a T-shirt and ball cap, launches into “Better as a Memory” as blinding spotlights pan the crowd and a crane camera swings up and down. An overheated teen nearby is heard to utter “Mom, I think I’m gonna pass out.” By the time Chesney kicks off “Never Wanted Nothing More,” a realization emerges that something seems out of place. The band is surprisingly laissez-faire for a television broadcast, messing around between songs. And Chesney is curiously uncommunicative to the crowd, not uttering a word after each tune ends. Gradually the epiphany hits us all, like an elephant sitting on an egg: This is just the sound check!
With aching feet and sweaty brows, our patience is finally rewarded as Chesney, now duded up in a proper shirt and a black cowboy hat, runs through hearty performances of … yes, that’s right … the same three songs we heard twice each over the course of the sound check. No ones seems to mind too much about that, though. Everyone’s just happy to be there. The three blonde sisters with matching Statue of Liberty sunglasses, the two blond Nebraskan teens scrolling through Chesney song titles on their iPhone, the folks who dutifully wave signs saying everything from “I love you Kenny!” to “Happy Birthday Uncle Al!” when the cameras pan over them. Chesney’s voice booms out of the speakers on either side of the plaza, belting big and strong. And from banjo to acoustic guitar, every element of the mix comes out shockingly clear for an outdoor show. Then, some 15 minutes after it started, it’s over as Kenny bids a quick goodbye and hops off the stage, and those who came to hear him slowly file out onto the street. A surprising number stay behind, though, to hear the rest of the show piped into the plaza over the sound system and wait for their split second of fame when the cameras cross their paths. Were they not here for the music at all to begin with, or did they just decide to hang around a while and make a morning of it to make a better story for the folks back home? Whatever the answer, they seem completely content to settle in for the duration, as they brave the 85-degree heat to hear about the hottest new gift tips for Father’s Day.