Monday, July 4, 2011

Kenny Chesney / Zac Brown Band / Billy Currington / Uncle Kracker

When The Sun Goes Down At Heinz Field...
Going Coastal Tour, Pittsburgh July 2nd, 2011

If you were one of the many thousands of (mostly drunken) people partying your ass off in the bleachers at Heinz Field this Saturday at the marathon Going Coastal extravaganza, you may not have noticed that the entire concrete and steel overhang on which the bleachers rest was bouncing. Of course, if you were as drunk as these folks, solid ground feels like it’s bouncing too. What I’m talking about is the kind of movement you get from an earthquake — one of those “HOLY SHIT! The ground is rocking” moments. This, I can assure you, is immediately followed by the realization that this thought could be your last, as the part of the stadium you are in collapses under circumstances the engineers had not envisioned: Kenny Chesney. Then you come to your senses and think, “Whatev. What a way to go.”

Let The Inky Jukebox tell you something about what happens when Kenny Chesney comes to town. A giant vortex sucks in hardcore party people from several states and deposits them at the stadium, where they tailgate like there’s no tomorrow from the crack of dawn until— well, tomorrow. If your stadium happens to be adjacent to a major waterway, expect to find boats moored 6-deep for miles, with canopies on the boardwalks shading fans who have dedicated themselves to a lifestyle where the dress code is a bikini, cornhole boards are sacred, and redemption can be found at the bottom of a red dixie cup. These people are already a deep brown early in the season, and probably recite the lines to Jimmy Buffett songs in their sleep.

Kenny Chesney’s got a reputation for putting on a hell of a show, and these folks know it. They will have missed out of they waited to enter the stadium until he came on however, because he has three other acts with him that were worth the price of admission alone.

Uncle Kracker breaks the ice with a half-hour set that features everything you’d expect him to sing: all his hits plus a healthy smattering of his well-known covers, including Dobie Grey’s “Drift Away” and Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler.” He also breaks out his good friend Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” which drives the crowd nuts.

After a very brief intermission, Nashville hottie Billy Currington takes the stage for a longer set. “Pretty Good At Drinking Beer” in particular appeals to everyone. What sets them on fire though, is a song everyone knew the words to and sings with gusto: “People Are Crazy.” (An Inky Jukebox Top Tip: If you want to write a real crowd-pleaser, include beer and get folks to admit they do insane shit. It’s a winner every time.)

It’s a bit of a misnomer to call this Kenny’s Tour, because it really has two headliners. The Zac Brown Band play a 90-minute set that could very well be an entire show. If you ever get a chance to see them play, DO SO. They are a phenomenal band live, not only because the vocalists’ harmonies are a thing of utter beauty, but because they know how to deliver live tunes peppered and seasoned with extra jams that cleverly blend in covers and other musical styles (in this case, reggae, perfect for summer). These guys also know how to cover a stage, running about from one end to the other like someone stuck a firecracker in their pants. Crowd favorites include the ballads “Highway 20 Ride” and “Colder Weather,” and the summertime ode “Toes.” They had everyone on their feet with their hats to their hearts for “Free” (with “Into The Mystic”), which felt just right, this being Independence Day Weekend. They ended with “Chicken Fried,” the crowd signing along with such rampant enthusiasm it was deafening.

What The Inky Jukebox loved seeing was what a live wire master musician Clay Cook is. When he’s not playing keyboards (“America the Beautiful” brought the house down too) he’s being an Axe God, for which he’s given his due with a long solo played out on the stage extension on a beautiful Les Paul Goldtop. When he plays he puts his whole body into it and makes an awesome guitar face. We also love the new song “Sweet Annie.”

When it’s time for the evening’s big hitter to come on, so does the volume; the opening chords to “Live A Little” echo around the stadium as if it was a glass at a wedding being tapped with a knife to announce a speech; the whole place rings and vibrates. The Inky Jukebox would like to point out at this juncture exactly WHY this is the perfect song to open a concert with; it’s not just that the intro is long, allowing anticipation to build until the inevitable crescendo yanks the curtain up — it’s because it is the introduction to AC/DC’s “For Those About To Rock” and The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” mixed together. Check it out:

Once Kenny hits the stage he does not stop. He sang his guts out for 2 hours and forty minutes, and The Inky Jukebox can safely say it was the loudest show she’s ever experienced (beating previous Loudest honorees WAR-era U2 and Crazyhorse by a mile, which is impressive seeing as The Inky Jukebox was at the opposite end of the field, and it was an open-air venue). This is not simply because the amps were cranked to breaking point, but because they were accentuated by 53,000 people singing along to every single word at the top of their lungs. An hour after the show The Inky Jukebox was still a little deaf.

Interestingly, Chesney didn’t give us much of his latest album, the excellent Hemingway’s Whiskey, filling the set list with a Greatest Hits collection, which STILL only covered half of what he could have included. He saved the superb “The Boys of Fall” for his encore, though this was a show for which the encore was NOT the end; both Uncle Kracker and The Zac Brown Band came back for an extended duet set after Chesney was finished.

Uncle Kracker came back out for “When The Sun Goes Down,” and stayed for a rousing rendition of “Cowboy,” with Chesney taking Kid Rock’s part. The local paper that shall not be named because they sent an intern to cover the show concluded that the tired fans were weary of The Zac Brown Band and Chesney’s monumental closing mash-up that included covers of Steve Miller, Tom Petty and Bob Marley among others, so gave it a weak reception.

Nothing could be further from the truth which is why they should have sent The Inky Jukebox instead; on the contrary, the crowd (most of whom stayed till the very last echo bounced off the seats) freaked out with joy. The Inky Jukebox suspects that the intern (being a college junior) was not old enough to recognize the songs, and therefore found the jam mystifying. The majority of the audience, however, consisted of people old enough to remember these songs when they first came out (The Inky jukebox included) and could therefore understand and appreciate the homage it was.

Of note was Chesney’s performance of “The Boys of Fall,” his anthemic love song to football, the video of which became such an iconic collection of images that it spawned it’s own documentary. Chesney preceded it by speaking directly to the Pittsburgh fans who were chanting “Here we go Steelers, here we go.” He mentioned how special it was to sing the song in Heinz Field (home of the Steelers), which delighted the crowd no end. The cheer that went up when the Steelers footage playing behind him came on was perhaps the loudest of the night. Chesney actually cracked up with emotion when singing (notice that, intern?); he could have been singing a spiritual for all the fans cared — three half naked boys in front of The Inky Jukebox all hugged up unselfconsciously, took off their hats and crushed them to their hearts, and held their other arms up in the air waving gently and swaying as if in church.

It’s clear why Chesney has been named Entertainer of the Year so many times; he’s earned it and continues to earn it every time he plays. This show was worth every penny, especially when you consider that you got four top-name acts or your buck.

(On the slow descent down the ramps exiting the stadium, The Inky Jukebox can report that a passionate chant of “Fuck You Jagr” could be heard reverberating off the concrete. Hey; it’s a sports town.) 

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