BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Although it’s usually saved for the encore, Kenny Chesney kicked off his concert with “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” on Thursday night (May 14) at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre near here. More than once, the hillbilly rock star seemed to be living in rewind, instead of fast forward — and the longtime fans were eating it up.
Chesney barely spoke at all during the nearly two-hour concert, but about halfway through the set, he told the audience he was going to do a song that he’d dropped from his set list for the last five or six years. When he launched into a romantic rendition of “Me and You,” a song that was popular in 1996, all the couples in my area of the amphitheater wrapped their arms around each other. Accompanied by only a saxophone and keyboards, he gestured to the audience when he sang, “As lucky as me and … you.” To my ears, it received the loudest applause of the night.
He followed that with “There Goes My Life,” one of his signature ballads, and was accompanied only by his keyboard player. Chesney has often talked about how he can’t stop thinking about ways to make his tours bigger and better, so it’s interesting that he may have connected the most with a low-key moment.
Of course, that quiet interlude was only temporary amid the party atmosphere of the Sun City Carnival Tour. Compared to the stadiums he’s filled, the outdoor venue was relatively small — a capacity of approximately 11,000 — and since there’s no lawn, even the seats in the back offered a nice view. I liked the digital island-inspired graphics that danced across the gigantic LCD screen behind him. During “Young,” Chesney also offered a satisfying trip down memory lane with dozens of photos from the mid-to-late-’90s when earnest songs like “Me and You” were his biggest hits.
My, how times have changed, though. With his Greatest Hits II landing in stores this Tuesday (May 19), Chesney has more than enough material to fill a set list. I won’t spoil any anticipation by listing the omissions, but I will say that several of my personal favorites still made the cut, including “Big Star,” “I Go Back” and “Anything but Mine.”
Judging from certain themes and transitions, he appears to have given serious thought to the song sequence of the new tour. The last verse of “Never Wanted Nothing More” (“I changed when I found the Lord”) led right into “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.” While I was in the drink line, I heard him sing “Beer in Mexico,” then “Keg in the Closet,” then “Out Last Night.” Do I sense a pattern here?
Those are fun tunes, but it’s the wistful songs that have established him as more than just another country singer. “Where I grew up, everything revolved around friends, family, school, sports, girls and church. That’s why I recorded this next song,” he said while introducing “Down the Road.” He carried the tune solo since duet partner Mac McAnally wasn’t around. Uncle Kracker wasn’t there to bounce around during “When the Sun Goes Down” either.
During his performance of “Never Wanted Nothing More,” I wrote this in my notebook: “You can tell he got into it for the music and not just to be famous.” I can’t remember now what prompted me to scribble that, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning. In the last five years, Chesney has definitely been recognized beyond country music circles but usually for the wrong reasons, like the failed marriage or that too-candid Playboy interview. But given the choice between Barbara Walters or a breezy concert in Birmingham, I’ll bet he’d take the latter option every time.
Speaking of choices, I much prefer smaller amphitheaters over stadium shows when I’m attending a Kenny Chesney concert. Parking was a snap (and free), the lines at the venue were reasonable, and I never got lost trying to find my seat again. Because Chesney is so fond of singing about simpler times, the easygoing atmosphere certainly fit neatly with the music.
Perhaps inspired by Chesney’s set list, Miranda Lambert opened her middle set with her most recognizable hit, “Kerosene.” Exuding confidence on “New Strings” and “Famous in a Small Town,” she showed a more vulnerable side when she dangled her legs over the edge of the stage to perform “More Like Her.” It’s easy to notice that many of the young women in the audience can identify with Lambert.
After she joked about her “Texas-sized booty” (her words, not mine), she then shook it all the way across the stage. Although she’s been covering Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” in other cities, it was a treat to hear it in this venue, since the late singer-songwriter was born about 60 miles away. In between all the stomping and hair-swishing, she also delighted the audience with a big surprise — her boyfriend, Blake Shelton, who stuck around just long enough to deliver “She Wouldn’t Be Gone.”
Lady Antebellum dashed through a very enjoyable 25-minute set. The pulse of their newest single, “I Run to You,” connected with the crowd, and they nailed a solid groove with their first hit, “Love Don’t Live Here.” When singers Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley dramatically marched toward each other from opposite ends of the stage during “All We’d Ever Need,” I couldn’t help but think of Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’ showdown during “Does He Love You” — probably because Scott is Davis’ daughter. Because it’s so early in their career, Lady A doesn’t have any onstage frills. In fact, the Jumbotrons weren’t even on during their set. All the same, you can’t miss their musical talent. Plus they were smart enough to sign autographs in the merchandise tent afterwards, meeting those fans who want to step right up before the carnival really gets going.View photos from Kenny Chesney’s concert.