A bit of professional advice to Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw: Your audience and video cameras are in front of the stage.
You’d think two guys with as much collective experience as these country music kingpins would know that by now. But both turned around so many times to face their bands during Saturday’s blockbuster Brothers of the Sun tour stop at Anaheim Stadium that it seemed as if for half the show all the sellout crowd and cameras had to look at was their backsides.
OK, so let’s face it: Somewhere along the line, contemporary country music became as focused on pecs and glutes as on music and lyrics, and this summer’s hunk fest starring Chesney and McGraw puts that emphasis in high relief.
Sure, fans love their hits, and there were plenty in the set lists of two of country’s most successful acts of the last two decades. There’s no suggestion here that Chesney and McGraw don’t put a lot of effort into what they write about or select among the thousands of songs submitted to them by other writers.
But when some of the biggest ovations of the evening are generated by projected images of the show’s star without his shirt, you know that it’s more than catchy turns of phrase and hummable melodies that pull nearly 45,000 people to the show.
Year in and year out, Chesney on his own is among the top touring acts across all genres; he often tops that list for the number of tickets sold because he keeps the prices well below what big-ticket rock and pop acts charge. McGraw also ranks consistently high as a concert draw, especially when he tours with his wife, Faith Hill. So the combination of Chesney and McGraw is proving to be a potent one, even with prices close to $300 per ticket when you factor in service fees.
In return, the pair gave audiences generous doses of what they came for: McGraw’s set was 80 minutes, then Chesney spent nearly two hours hopscotching through his extensive repertoire before both returned for about 25 minutes together with all hands on deck from both of their own bands along with their opening acts, Grace Potter and Jake Owen.
Chesney was up front about the raison d’etre of his time onstage, telling the party-minded crowd early on that whatever might be troubling them in their lives, “me and the band are going to help you check it at the gate, if that’s OK.” There wasn’t a “nay” to be heard among his constituents.
The overriding element of his set was energetic good times, both in songs such as the opener, “Beer in Mexico,” as well as “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem,” “Reality” and “We Went Out,” which celebrate the hedonistic life, and reflective numbers including “I Go Back,” “Back Where I Come From” and “The Boys of Fall,” which look nostalgically on what Bruce Springsteen explored more probingly in “Glory Days.”
Chesney is an immensely engaging performer, and it’s no surprise that he keeps packing arenas and stadiums — he works hard for his money and like his role model Jimmy Buffett understands the role that escapism can play to hard-working, stressed-out fans.
At times he may be guilty of sending mixed messages: At one moment extolling the virtues of his small-town upbringing in Luttrell, Tenn., and then advising the crowd to “find the one thing that really matters and let go of the rest,” while music-video imagery plays behind him depicting his steamy romance with a supermodel on a multimillion-dollar yacht. But anyone who comes to a summer stadium concert and worries about mixed messages has probably come to the wrong place.
Chesney did explore broken relationships and their aftermath in “Somewhere With You” and he examined the hectic pace of his own life in the spotlight in “Fast Forward,” but those were quick detours along the feel-good highway. Potter joined him to reprise her duet duties on their hit collaboration “You and Tequila,” yet another tune that positions alcohol as one of the indispensable elements of the good life.
“How Forever Feels” and “Never Wanted Nothing More” demonstrate that Chesney is aware of the potential for change: the idea that one can learn from and grow by observing one’s life — a concept that’s been central to the best country music over time and that still has some role, albeit a minor one, in his world.
McGraw also looks at times for the philosophical lightbulb moments, notably in “Live Like You Were Dying,” in which he sings of a character who confronts a life-threatening illness and suddenly turns his priorities around. The upshot of the revelation, however, is to indulge in extreme adventure activities such as sky-diving and bull-riding rather than finding new motivation for inner exploration.
Like Chesney and other contemporary country singers, McGraw also likes reflecting on the good old days of a Mayberry-like youth, which he did with some sense of humor in his hit “Back When,” written by Stan Smith, Stephony Smith and Jeff Stevens, celebrating a time before drug humor and sexual innuendo flooded pop culture, when “a hoe was just a hoe … and when you said, ‘I’m down with that,’ it meant you had the flu.”
“Better Than I Used to Be” looks at a man in transition, an idea that doesn’t get much attention in country these days but often was on the minds and in the songs of the genre’s titans: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. The songs McGraw is most often drawn to favor pushbutton emotional responses over genuine revelation, but he delivers them sincerely and on occasion brings an evocative break in his voice to sometimes melodramatic source material.
Together for the evening’s big payoff collaboration, Chesney and McGraw teamed for their recent hit duet “Feel Like a Rock Star,” exhorting listeners to embrace whatever activities in life make them feel like said rock star. As they stood on a massive stage surrounded by banks of sound equipment and state-of-the-art lighting effects in front of throngs of whooping fans, it was at times hard to detect the difference between a modern-day rock star and a country star, except for the cowboy hats.
Opening act Jake Owen didn’t wear one, but he fit the bill for pinup potential with his body-hugging T-shirt and jeans, carefully groomed three-day stubble and chiseled good looks. He’s a competent singer but wouldn’t get the time of day if he didn’t also happen to look like he could land a gig at Chippendale’s.
That made Potter’s 30-minute set that followed Owen all the more impressive, as she opened with an a cappella, gospel-ish number in the full light of the afternoon sun, a none-too-easy gig given who surrounded her on all sides. The driving rock she plays with her band, the Nocturnals, was a dubious fit on the country bill, and she tried to engage fans who’d probably known her only for the Chesney duet by pounding out Heart’s “Crazy on You” in addition to a handful of her own songs.
Potter has an attractive sandpapery voice, but whatever nuance it might be capable of is more likely to surface in a club or a theater performance than during her slot with the Brothers of the Sun tour.