ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Kenny Chesney taking an 18-month hiatus from performing concerts is about as likely as Brett Favre not starting an NFL game, Jerry Sloan not coaching the NBA's Utah Jazz or the University of Connecticut women's basketball team losing a game.
Well, it happened. Favre's streak ended, Sloan retired and UConn did lose one game. And Chesney took his first extended hiatus from the road after eight consecutive summers of selling 1 million tickets per year. But the four-time CMA and ACM entertainer of the year is back.
This month, he started his Goin' Coastal tour, bound for 11 NFL stadiums and an arena or amphitheater near you. After a two-city warm-up in Florida, Chesney took Goin' Coastal where it's needed most -- the Snow Belt. On Friday (March 25) in St. Paul, he was greeted by 26 degrees and six inches of new snow that pushed this winter's total to the fourth highest ever in the Twin Cities.
And he had just what the Minne-snowtans needed -- a three-hour tour of hits, covers and tropical celebrations. (Yes, he was literally onstage for just seven minutes short of three hours.)
Chesney did not hide his affection for Xcel Energy Center, where he was performing for the eighth time in 10 years. He told the sell-out crowd of 15,927 he'd had an epiphany in the building the first time he headlined there back in 2003. He was nervous and uncertain if he and his band could hack it as headliners. Then when he heard the loudest noise he'd ever witnessed, he turned to the band and knew they wouldn't have to look back.
Of course, when hearing that, Friday's crowd responded with a thunderous ovation, which Chesney instantly pronounced louder than the original ear-splitting cheer.
Always hyperkinetic, Chesney seemed to have an extra bounce in his boot scootin' as he boogied across a cross-shaped runway that extended from the stage. In fact, he spent most of the night on the runway. His seven-man band (no horns this tour) was stationed on the main stage with a giant video wall behind them projecting live shots, music video clips, historic footage and photos and splashy, colorful artsy patterns.
As always, Chesney started at full gallop when the curtain went up, tearing through "Live a Little," "Reality," "Live Those Songs Again" and "Summertime." He was so amped, he couldn't even stand still during the ballads. His slow dance partner on "The Woman With You" was his microphone stand.
Oh, it wasn't exactly lonely onstage. Chesney occasionally featured his sidemen, especially fiddler-guitarist Nick Hoffman. He had plenty of runway time for solos -- because he always does and because he's from the Twin Cities, where he was greeted with an extra-loud ovation before Chesney proclaimed "Nick Hoffman from Minneapolis."
While a Chesney concert invariably feels like a Corona-fueled party in overdrive, there were a few moments Friday to suggest that maybe the eternal frat boy is maturing. (And I'm not talking about the omission of "Keg in the Closet.") During a brief acoustic set, he performed the Mexican-flavored ballad "This Life" and "I'm Alive," which he said he'd never done in concert before. A co-write by Chesney and Dave Matthews, it was darker and frankly un-Chesney-like, which wasn't a bad thing. Another sonic departure was the superstar's most recent No. 1 single, the atmospheric "Somewhere With You," which evoked Coldplay with a slight hip-hop cadence.
Before too long, Chesney brought out Uncle Kracker, one of his opening acts, for "When the Sun Goes Down." and before you know it, it turned into an unplanned bar-band free-for-all. First, Kracker led the crowd in a premature "Happy Birthday Kenny" cheer, although his 43rd birthday didn't begin till midnight. (FYI: Chesney celebrated his birthday onstage in St. Paul in 2005 with Gretchen Wilson bringing him a giant margarita and singing Marilyn Monroe-style, but that's another story.) Then came the country classic "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" and a medley of Steve Miller's "The Joker" (welcoming Billy Currington, his other opening act, in midsong) and Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds."
Reality returned with Chesney's own "When I Close My Eyes" and the still-popular-after-all-these-years "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." Then guess what? More free-wheeling fun as a roadie came onstage to join Chesney on vocals for Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" (perfect for the Goin' Coastal tour) and U2's "With or Without You." Chesney couldn't leave out guitarist Clayton Mitchell, who handled some of the vocals on the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and a blast of Stevie Ray Vaughan blues on "Pride and Joy."
Chesney encored with "There Goes My Life" and the inevitable "Boys of Fall," which ended with the video clip of all those coaches giving pep talks and the superstar on the stage signing autographs. If he'd performed another song, it would have been birthday party time.
Kracker and Currington warmed up the crowd. Kracker mixed in Kid Rock's apropos "All Summer Long" with his own hits, "Follow Me," "Smile" and "Good to Be Me." Currington, a curly haired cutie who looks like the bearded older brother of the star of Social Network, cruised through "Let Me Down Easy," "Swimmin' in Sunshine" and "Must Be Doin' Somethin' Right" with an appealing pop-soul undercurrent.
Jon Bream is a music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the author of biographies of Prince, Led Zeppelin and Neil Diamond.