BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
(This review was originally posted at 12:04 a.m. Aug. 4, 2013)
Kenny Chesney recently announced that he’s taking a break from touring in 2014.
Sad for fans? Sure, especially the die-hards who revel in the carefree country-pop that he sells with a genuine smile and many blown kisses.
But those who witnessed Chesney’s headlining wallop Saturday night at the Georgia Dome – and with a crowd that nudged toward 50,000, that’s a lot of witnesses – can tuck away plenty of memories to get them through the lean months.
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Currently rolling through his 42-stop “No Shoes Nation” stadium tour with a rotating cast of pals that in Atlanta included homegrown superstars the Zac Brown Band, Texas country-rockers the Eli Young Band and buzzy newcomer Kacey Musgraves, Chesney sweated through his muscle shirt and tight jeans by the third song in his nearly two-hour set.
Although his vocals on the opening “Feel Like a Rockstar” were completely buried in the mix (and with four guitarists on the song, it’s almost forgivable), Chesney didn’t miss a beat or a grin as he scampered around the T-shaped catwalk that stretched from the stage, slapping hands with ringsiders. The sound issues cleared quickly, and for the duration, Chesney’s solid, if average, voice rang much more cleanly through the Dome.
Chesney was a gleeful, gracious host who repeatedly bestowed compliments on the crowd and Atlanta with the ease of a politician. But every molecule was dedicated to entertaining his faithful flock, which Chesney and his seven-piece band achieved by unleashing a torrent of singalongs and hard-working showmanship.
He passionately delivered “Reality,” then strapped on a guitar and worked both ends of the stage – which was flanked by a pair of mammoth video screens - during “Beer in Mexico,” a country song with a blinding pop sheen.
While Chesney showcased a catalog that ranges from the moody “Somewhere with You” to the punchy “I Go Back” to the sweetly melancholy “You and Tequila,” much of his oeuvre owes a debt to Jimmy Buffett – but none as much as the lightweight hoist-a-beer anthem, “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem,” which the well-lubricated crowd agreed with readily and sang heartily.
After the double-punch of “Living in Fast Forward” and “Young” – neither of which would be out of place on a Def Leppard record if given edgier production – Chesney took a detour into Reggae-ville (“Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”) before bringing Brown out for a cute medley of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and Steve Miller’s “The Joker” (Brown also joined Chesney’s set last summer at the Dome, but that really was a surprise since Tim McGraw shared the bill).
But even if Mr. “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” simply stood gawking at the crowd with amazement – despite his success, he appears to maintain a healthy humility – fans roared, content to soak up his sunny aura.
Prior to Chesney, the Zac Brown Band provided an equally entertaining, slightly more musically ambitious show.
The other six guys who inject their ingredients into the ZBB sound – violinist Jimmy De Martini, drummer Chris Fryer, organist/guitarist Coy Bowles, bassist John Driskell Hopkins, percussionist Daniel de los Reyes and guitarist/organist Clay Cook – are as unlikely looking stars as Brown.
They’re a scruffy collection of beards, stringy hair and rumpled T-shirts, but when they harmonize on “Colder Weather” or Brown projects his pure voice on the James Taylor-esque “As She’s Walking Away” or the band dives into a full-throttle jam at the end of “Who Knows,” it all makes sense.
ZBB’s musicianship is always impressive. But during the band’s 90-minute set, it sparkled on a taut cover of the Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching” (even Brown’s eyebrows aped Matthews’ unique look) and absolutely smoked on the new “Day for the Dead,” which Brown said will be on the band’s 2014 album. With its percussive breaks, tasty slide guitar, a snippet of beat-boxing and three-part harmonies, the song is a knockout.
But of course the crowd was mostly interested in crooning along with familiar back-porch-swingers “Chicken Fried” and “Goodbye in Her Eyes.”
As smooth as Brown and Co. sounded on their own material, the night’s highlights – aside from “Dead” – were the band’s other two covers, both which they performed earlier this year at the free NCAA concert in Centennial Olympic Park.
Their muscular version of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” – sung by the more menacing-sounding Hopkins – is so good, you expected to see Mariano Rivera jog out on stage. The band closed with its sinfully fun take on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” on which birthday boy De Martini glowed while Brown got into character and glowered as he ripped out some head-spinning guitar notes.
Earlier in the night, the Eli Young Band turned out a serviceable set of barroom country rockers. Songs such as “Skeletons,” “On My Way” and their No. 1 country hit from last year, “Even if it Breaks Your Heart” are the type of generic tunes that receive plenty of airplay but are hardly artistic statements.
Mike Eli’s vocals were muddled throughout their performance and completely overpowered by the guitar during a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.” But it’s doubtful anyone noticed.
Much more impressive was Musgraves, who had the thankless task of playing at 5 p.m., when a fraction of the stadium was filled.
Looking like a young Demi Moore in her floppy hat and striped sleeveless shirt, Musgraves, who turns 25 this month, possesses a lovely, mellifluous voice that probably sounds flawless in a club or theater.
Her coffeehouse-pop songs such as the Fleetwood Mac-ish “Back on the Map” and wistful and vivid “Merry Go ‘Round” were well-received by the small assembly, and Musgraves’ musicianship was evident in her ability to play guitar, banjo and harmonica during her brief set.
A stadium isn’t the ideal location for her music, but she deserves the exposure.