BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
Let’s get this out of the way.
Yes, the sound at Mercedes-Benz Stadium has improved since Garth Brooks took his in-the-round stage there in October.
Is it perfect?
No. And it probably won’t ever be because, well, it’s a stadium and in 22 years of covering concerts, I’ve never left any stadium show saying, “Wow, that sounded AMAZING.”
Midway through Kenny Chesney’s Saturday night country music party, which attracted more than 51,000 fans, I hoofed it to the 300-level and stood in section 337 while Chesney sang “Save it For a Rainy Day” with Old Dominion frontman Matthew Ramsey.
There was indeed an echo, and, while the music still sounded stadium-level, the vocals of the two singers dissipated by the time they reached the upper deck.
Still, everyone in my sightline was singing along, so the delay issue that rightly irritated so many at Brooks’ show has been mitigated.
At the massive bar near section 232, fans sang along heartily with “Living In Fast Forward,” indicating they could hear the vocals just fine.
On the floor, several attendees deemed their sound experience "excellent" and "great...not like Garth."
And in my section – 129 – I could easily discern every lyric (and I’m not familiar with all of them) and Chesney’s top-notch six-piece band sounded loud and clean.
The stadium sound techs and guest services crew also took a proactive approach by monitoring social media feeds and visiting fans who voiced specific complaints to try to rectify any problems.
So, just like the MBS roof, the audio for concerts is still a work in progress, but headed in the right direction.
At least they’re trying.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming – the concert itself.
They could have dubbed this outing the “Exceptionally Likeable Dudes Tour” considering the easygoing, Everyman appeal of Chesney, his second in command on the bill, Thomas Rhett, and fellow openers Old Dominion and Brandon Lay.
Fans were saturated with six hours of country music in an evening that hit its apex when Chesney arrived on stage at 9 p.m., took a deep breath and blew a kiss to the crowd as his band burst into “Beer in Mexico.”
“All day long, I knew how this was gonna feel…and it feels incredible!” he shouted as the first of many proclamations about playing Atlanta during this “Trip Around the Sun” tour.
In his first appearance since a 2015 show at the departed Georgia Dome, Chesney stuck to his usual script of positivity and relaxation. He’s like an athlete onstage, a blur of constant movement, pumping the suntanned triceps that poked out of his red tank top, dousing himself with water and skittering down the T-shaped catwalk that extended from the stage.
He dropped to his knees for an air punch and yelp during the take-a-break anthem, “Reality,” cranked out the gritty riff of “Til It’s Gone” on his Gibson guitar, and looked jubilant doing all of it.
Even when he could stop for a breath, Chesney instead used those six seconds to slap another fan’s hand or blow another kiss.
He carries his compact frame with the swagger of a rocker and the humility of a guy who knows how rare it is to still fill stadiums. Most country stars are openly gracious, but Chesney’s appreciation of his fans has always been on another level.
His band, which features standout bassist Harmoni Kelley and guitarist Kenny Greenberg, rolled through the two-hour set with seamless segues between songs. From the Buffett-meets-Alabama singalong “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” to the moody “Somewhere with You” – which featured a stinging solo from Greenberg – to the wistful, “I Go Back,” it was all about unplugging for a while and letting Chesney and Co. do the heavy lifting.
Chesney’s new hit, “Get Along,” from his upcoming July album, “Songs for the Saints,” is tailor-made for big crowd participation with its sing-song chorus and lyrics about turning negatives into positives.
“What a beautiful place to play music,” he said, looking around somewhat awestruck at the insides of the gleaming stadium.
Even since turning 50 earlier this year, it’s apparent that Chesney’s love of playing music live hasn’t diminished. More than 90 minutes into his set, he was still leaping in the air, patting his chest and sweating through his shirt as he led the crowd through “Setting the World on Fire.”
Chesney also had a surprise guest waiting in the wings – David Lee Murphy, with whom Chesney recorded the hit, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” last year. The pair gave the crowd an extra dash of fun by playing Murphy’s 1995 hits “Dust on the Bottle” and “Party Crowd.”
“I truly believe music brings people together,” Chesney said from the stage. “Music stamps our lives like nothing else does.”
Amen to that, brother.
Earlier in the evening, Thomas Rhett also treated fans to a special moment when, midway through his hour and 15 minute set, he introduced his father, Rhett Akins, a formidable country songwriter who visited the charts quite often in the 1990s.
Together, the Valdosta natives cranked out “That Ain’t My Truck,” along with a couple of those written-for-other-people hits – “Dirt on My Boots” (Jon Pardi) and “Boys ‘Round Here” (Blake Shelton).
It was a sweet, unscripted moment that culminated in a bear hug between father and son, and a highlight within Thomas Rhett’s otherwise highly polished set.
He raced around the cavernous stage in his ripped jeans and satin Braves jacket during the pop-rocker “T-Shirt” and channeled Rick Springfield with the daddy-centric “Renegades.”
Rhett is a friendly guy who always stopped to give a signature or take a selfie and he adroitly worked the stage as he sang “Get Me Some of That,” one of his many songs more likely to have a synthesizer than a banjo.
He grinned behind his trimmed beard during his most recent hit, “Life Changes,” a sunny chug of a song inspired by the two little additions to his family and elicited mostly cheers when he asked, “Can we get a big ‘ol ‘Go Dawgs!’ in the house tonight?”
But for all of his danceable soul-pop (“Make Me Wanna,” “Craving You”), Rhett has become a young Jedi master of the swoony song. Just listen to “Star of the Show,” “Marry Me” or his show-stopper, “Die a Happy Man” for proof.
He might not be old-school country, but the guy knows how to work a room.
Also sharing the bill was Old Dominion, the Nashville quintet behind such hits as “Song for Another Time” and “Break Up with Him.”
During its 45-minute set, the band introduced a new tune, the pleasant strummer “Make it Sweet” (sample lyric: “Life is short, make it sweet”).
Singer Ramsey shared with the crowd Old Dominion’s long history of playing Atlanta and marveled at playing the stadium before the band kicked into last year’s No. 1 hit, “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart.”