PHOENIX -- With a bigger setup than ever, Kenny Chesney rose to the occasion Saturday night (May 31) with a huge, feel-good summer show aimed at lucky listeners in the "sandbox" as well as enthusiastic country fans wayyyyy in the back of the University of Phoenix Stadium. You know you're a big deal when Keith Urban is your opening act, preceded by Sammy Hagar and Gary Allan.
Now that he's winning entertainer of the year trophies, like the fan-voted one from the Academy of Country Music a few weeks ago, Chesney probably feels the heat to stay at the top of his game. Luckily, there really wasn't much heat to be felt at this show since the retractable roof of the stadium didn't open until just before his set. Besides giving the music a little bit of room to breathe, it also provided a moment of reflection: This guy is playing stadiums. Few acts are doing that these days.
It's been a few years since I've been to a Chesney stadium show, but I noticed a few additions. He's got a horn section now, and the catwalk seems to get bigger and longer every year. I wouldn't be surprised to see it extend all the way to the rafters next time. My seats were in the second row, directly in front of the speakers -- and not the stage, unfortunately -- so I retreated to the middle of the venue to get a better view. And thank goodness, because -- with the possible exception of Brad Paisley -- nobody provides a better visual component to their shows. The lighting is excellent and the digital graphics are extraordinary, with tropical flowers and hula dancers gliding across the orange and turquoise landscape. I wish I could use that as my screensaver.
All of this would be mostly meaningless if the songs weren't there, and I especially enjoyed hearing live versions of his newer hits, like "Never Wanted Nothing More" and "Better as a Memory," along with an encore of "Anything but Mine." Uncle Kracker showed up to sing a few lines of "When the Sun Goes Down" and "Follow Me," but mostly he pointed the microphone at the audience. Meanwhile, Chesney never seems to get winded. This is hard to describe, but he kind of sings with his whole face, like that expressive uncle who always has a good story to share and makes sure you're listening closely. And Chesney rarely stands still, constantly running up and down the catwalk, stopping occasionally to blow kisses to the nosebleed section.
One thing, though: Why is he always looking over his shoulder? Maybe it's a silent code for a sound glitch or something, but in the middle of his set, he was constantly throwing his head back for a quick second, like he was making sure the drummer was actually sitting there. Maybe he was doing that all night and I just didn't notice until halfway through. It's a small distraction, but when a singer's face is plastered on an enormous digital screen, even the cheap seats notice things like that. Maybe I'll chalk it up to the fact that nearly all of his songs are about looking back, in a nostalgic sense.
Keith Urban doesn't use all those tricks, but he brings one super-cool component -- a ridiculously gigantic screen with the crispest picture imaginable. Even way across the football field, it felt like you were watching a flat-panel in somebody's basement. He also employs a first-rate lighting technician and is supported by one of the most talented road bands in country music. He knows it, too, giving them a chance to step into the spotlight with a few verses. You can tell he loves the camaraderie, and nobody looks like they're having more fun at a Keith Urban concert than Keith Urban himself.
I was hoping he'd unveil some new music, but I was satisfied with all the hits -- such as "I Told You So," a stripped-down "Better Half" and a solo acoustic version of "Raining on Sunday." I also appreciate the fact that he doesn't beg the audience for applause. I'm OK with one, "How y'all doin', PHOENIX!!!" But his talent stands on its own, without any cheesy banter. All he could have said was, "So, I'm expecting a baby pretty soon," and we all would have screamed. Cheers to restraint.
Dressed casually in a Rolling Stones T-shirt and jeans, Urban wasn't acting like a superstar. A few times, he'd catch a glimpse of the stadium seats, with thousands of fans looking back at him, and giggle a little bit, shaking his head in disbelief. Although he's now more famous than ever, I still consider him more of a musician than a celebrity. Truly, few people in Nashville have more talent, and if you've never seen him live, I'd recommend it. After his set, my friend said, "Makes me want to practice guitar." To which I replied, "Either that, or give it up forever."
Earlier in the afternoon, I watched Hagar on the closed-circuit TV while waiting for a pizza (45-minute line). Same with Allan while in line for a bottle of water (45 minutes). The venue apparently didn't know that a Chesney/Urban double bill would be a huge draw. They put the beer stands directly opposite from the concession stands, and those intertwined lines blocked the concourse for the bathrooms -- and only about half the bathrooms were open. Every $4 bottle of water was poured into a cup, which meant the lines took forever, not to mention double the amount of plastic going into the trash. Same thing for the Corona beer, the tour sponsor, and you needed a blue wristband to go onto the field to get one, anyway. Poor planning like this makes a long day even longer.
Luckily, Kenny Chesney's concert creed is simple: "Forget your problems. Enjoy the music." So that's exactly what I did.
View photos of Kenny Chesney's concert in Phoenix.