Seeing Kenny Chesney perform live is a bit like seeing what happens after a hyperactive kid eats a half-pound bag of Skittles and washes them down with a liter of Coca-Cola.
And if you were at the 50-year-old country-music megastar’s concert at PNC Music Pavilion on Friday night — or have watched him do his thing live anytime within the past couple of decades — you know what I’m talking about.
He is in perpetual motion on stage, leaping, bounding, skipping, spinning, dancing; in fleeting moments, he almost appears to be doing calisthenics straight out of a Jillian Michaels video. With the hand that isn’t holding the microphone, he makes every (PG-rated) gesture in the book while also inventing a few new ones, and he makes them not gracefully but forcefully, with maximum enthusiasm.
His performances are in fact workouts, and for proof one simply needed to keep an eye on the gray Love For Love City v-neck tank top Chesney wore with blue jeans, brown boots and a low-brimmed cowboy hat on Friday night.
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By the second song — 2011’s “Reality,” which he sang as he patrolled the T-shaped catwalk doling out high-fives so emphatically you’d think he’d just won the Sugar Bowl — he already had a sweat stain the size of a softball on said shirt. By the fifth — anthemic hit “Pirate Flag” — the entire front was soaked. An hour later, he’d sweated through every square inch of the back, too, and the upper part of his jeans were starting to darken.
Chesney even managed to turn a love song like “Somewhere With You” into a breathless experience that involved lots of hand-waving and something resembling restless leg syndrome and possibly even a handful of jumping jacks.
All of that is to say this: The guy literally pays in perspiration to make sure fans get their money’s worth.
Of course, Chesney’s concerts aren’t merely sweat fests. After years and years on the road, they’ve become well-oiled machines that are painstakingly engineered to be crowd-pleasing.
That’s why they’ll start with, say, a half-dozen young women wearing short shorts and halter tops while firing Kenny tees into the crowd via cannons; why the opening montage of people blurting “Welcome to the show” includes one of Charlotte’s favorite sons, Dale Earnhardt Jr.; why Chesney looks fans in their eyes and silently mouths words like “I see you” and “thank you” at specific individuals, not just obliquely.
We could argue all day about which of his songs are the essentials and gripe all night about the fact that his setlist had this hit but not that one; the thing is, to a large extent it’s more about the feel of his shows than it is about the specific tracks he settles on or what order they come in.
For instance, “Beer in Mexico” felt like the perfect way to kick off the night. Right? But if you took a different uptempo Kenny Chesney song, set it against a backdrop of high-definition images of good-looking people frolicking in crystal-clear blue waters and drinking Coronas with limes, and stretched it out to eight minutes long by letting his rhythm and bass guitars shred like wild for three of them, then that song would become perfect way to open the show.
That’s not a complaint, that’s simply to say he seems to be focused — as he probably should be — on concocting visceral experiences that rely on more than just music and lyrics. Like Jimmy Buffett at his best, Chesney manages to conjure the feel of sun and surf and sand where there is none and create a space where everybody feels a little younger, a little more good-looking, and a lot more carefree than they actually are.
Speaking of carefree, ladies tossed their underthings on stage twice over the course of the evening, and both times they prompted one-liners from the headliner. When one woman tossed up a bra during breezy beach favorite “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem” six songs in, Chesney quipped: “A little early, isn’t it?” When another landed near his feet after the nostalgic “I Go Back,” he noted, wryly: “Friendly bunch!”
Perhaps suprisingly, neither garment ended up on the mic stand by the drum kit that was adorned with a half-dozen colorful “prop” bras. A staple at his shows, it’s a cheeky decoration most of the time, but at once felt slightly out of place when the singer dedicated 2003’s “Big Star” to “the dreamers, especially the young girls out there” ... who hopefully aspire to do more than toss their lingerie at Kenny Chesney someday.
But the awkward moment was quickly forgotten (at least until I got home to write this) when one song later came an even more surreal moment: As the show’s 11 o’clock curfew drew near, Chesney turned to party hit “Out Last Night” then turned the lights on his fans so he could watch them sing the chorus.
There before him, a sea of glassy eyes and unsteady swaying — maybe to the beat, maybe not — as thousands slurred these words:
We went out last night
Like we swore we wouldn’t do
Drank to much beer last night
A lot more than we wanted to...
I trust y’all had a great time last night, but more importantly: I hope y’all got home safe.
Kenny Chesney’s setlist
1. “Beer in Mexico”
3. “Til It’s Gone”
5. “Pirate Flag”
6. “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems”
7. “Somewhere With You”
8. “I Go Back”
9. “Get Along”
10. “Anything but Mine”
11. “Save It for a Rainy Day” (with Old Dominion)
12. “When the Sun Goes Down”
13. “Old Blue Chair”
14. “All the Pretty Girls”
15. “Living in Fast Forward”
18. “American Kids”
19. “Setting the World on Fire”
20. “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”
21. “How Forever Feels”
22. “Big Star”
23. “Out Last Night”
24. “Don’t Happen Twice”
25. “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”