July 15th, 2012, 4:48 pm · · posted by BEN WENER, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Most everywhere else in America – the cradle of the South, the Midwest plains, deep in the heart of Texas – country shows like the one that took over the Big A on Saturday routinely sell out stadiums on the strength of a single headliner, plus a strong supporting act or two.
Not so in California, where superstars like Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, two of Nashville’s most bankable names, have only been able to reach arena level on their own in the past decade. Truly enormous throngs of 50,000-plus people are drawn to Stagecoach, the Indio festival that five years after launching is among the biggest such attractions nationwide, further removing the myth that Cali folks just aren’t country.
That increasingly popular event clearly paved the way for something as monumental as an Anaheim stop on the Brothers of the Sun Tour, a massive-scale endeavor reteaming old friends Chesney and McGraw. But the six-hour sprawl, which kicked off in late afternoon with sharp but short sets from Jake Owen and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, succeeded more than just at the box office. This show was symbolic: Never again let it be said that what works in the Heartland won’t always cut it on the West Coast.
Granted, stadium events come with more disadvantages than perks. Traffic snarls, thick parking congestion, endless and poorly controlled lines for the bathrooms (and beer), clueless ushers and guards ill-prepared for widely (and often wildly) drunken concert crowds – that’s enough to deter even ardent fans, never mind how rotten and uncontrollably reverberating the sound can get in such an enormous space.
There’s a reason so few tours bother with stadiums anymore, and it has nothing to do with the market value of the artist. People just don’t enjoy themselves as much as they do at arenas or amphitheaters.
But country crowds are a different breed, which makes it all the more stupefying that it has taken so long for a package tour like Chesney & McGraw to become a booking slam-dunk here. I’ve been to Wango Tangos at the Rose Bowl, seen Madonna and the Stones (not together) at Dodger Stadium, U2 at the Big A and scores more of such magnitude, yet I never encounter concert-goers so eager to get sloshed as at gigantic country shows. They make those Jimmy Buffett tailgate fiestas look like quaint tea parties.
You should have seen the bacchanal baking in the sun down in the Sandbar, the general-admission field pit surrounding the wide catwalk stage extensions. Half of those lucky wristband-wearers were thoroughly wasted yet belting along to every lyric as loudly as possible, often arm in arm like bands of brothers. The other half were so beyond wasted they could barely keep from collapsing, buckling and swaying into passers-by who simply lifted ’em back up and got ’em singing again.
I had a front-row seat to that dogpile, which grew more tightly packed every time McGraw or Chesney (but more so McGraw) wandered out to the very edges of the stage, a swarm of iPhones tracking their every move. There also was exciting chaos elsewhere on the field, closer to second base, when twice the headliners emerged upon a rotating platform atop the soundboard canopy.
Chesney entered that way, opening his set strumming guitar and hollering “Beer in Mexico” before taking a remote-controlled lift across wires over the audience’s heads back to the main stage for, what else, “Keg in the Closet” and “Summertime.” McGraw, who delivered his own, stronger set of similar length before the beach bum from East Tennessee took over, returned to the show via the satellite stage, his all-white (and skin-tight) get-up from earlier in the day traded for ripped-up jeans and a wife-beater tank top.
He didn’t take the sky lift, however, just walked among the crowd to meet Chesney on the proper stage for “Feel Like a Rockstar.” That was the first bit of a four-song joint-effort encore that included “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and ended with a solid cover of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” a not-entirely-inappropriate choice that’s still something of a head-scratcher, considering how many other smashes these chart-dominating figures could have saved for the finale.
How did McGraw slightly edge out Chesney? Greater consistency.
Chesney, who can quickly become a wound-up, sweat-soaked spitfire on stage, has rarely seemed more human in Southern California performances than he did Saturday night. His set list sported smart pairings of selections (“Living in Fast Forward” shifting into “Young”) and the effective use of narrative framing devices, as when the reflections of “I Go Back” and “Back Where I Come From” (the latter aided by Ashton Kutcher) bookended a segment of rocky-relationship songs, capped by an acoustic take on the Potter duet “You and Tequila.”
All of that painted a portrait of Chesney not as some immensely wealthy recluse resurfacing with new tales after sailing the seven seas, but rather as a regular guy just as relatable as Buffett. Yet he was hampered by three factors:
1) His overall sound was noticeably (if also inexplicably) less powerful than McGraw’s, his vocals muted at first and drowned out by cheering fans. I don’t think things ever fully improved: I left my up-close post to walk around during the last portion of the show and instantly encountered a whole spectrum of mixing issues, from sweet spots to utter crud, the band often coming across distant.
2) Here he is the defining star of the night, with boating lifestyle visuals to boot, yet he hardly made the most of the stage after his auspicious entrance. I saw as much of ace guitarists Kenny Greenberg and Clayton Mitchell trotting down the catwalks toward me as I did Chesney himself. Yes, cameras were on him almost constantly, so people in the upper decks probably couldn’t notice any difference. But his neglect of those extensions sucked some energy away after McGraw had worked the place so well.
3) Chesney’s performance eventually went off the rails and grew disingenuous. “Thought we’d go off the set list tonight,” he remarked as Mitchell and the band kicked into a fair handling of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Not only is that untrue – they’ve been playing it at virtually every stop, followed by a fun but unnecessary take on Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” – it was a distraction from what is otherwise a well-conceived rundown of his best material, the sort of goofy thing to do at a smaller gig, not far-reaching entertainment like this.
McGraw’s set, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more on-the-money, the pacing of it ideal, the range of it just right, from touching ballads like “Where the Green Grass Grows” and a robust rendition of “Live Like You Were Dying” to hearty good times in the heat with his final match-up in the encore, “I Like It, I Love It” and the hard-rockin’ “Truck Yeah.” There’s also considerably more variety to his music, with detours like the bouncy Ben Folds/Brian Wilson vibe of “Mexicoma” and the Elton John honky-tonk of “Something Like That” counterbalancing the genial predictability of stuff like “Just to See You Smile” and “For a While” or the reformed bad-boy pose of “Better Than I Used to Be.”
By comparison, even Chesney’s finest sides can still blur together into one catamaran glide down the shore. What was more evident, though, is that McGraw simply out-sang Chesney this night, convincing with every note, classic in his composure – whereas the evening’s closer, without ever sounding less than adequate, too often played up his ringmaster role than his chops as a vocalist.
But I bet you anything that most people who were there don’t care; I’m analyzing this bash way too esoterically. What matters to them is bang for their buck and whether they had a blast. Well, how could they not when presented with first-rate formula from two of the best in the biz, plus afternoon sets filled with hits they know and memorable remakes?
Potter and her group tackled Heart’s “Crazy on You,” while Owen and his band wickedly jammed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” back to life before closing with some fired-up Alabama on a medley framed by “Tennessee River” and “Dixieland Delight.” Both performers garnered enthusiastic responses, particularly when Potter, in her usual miniskirt and lacy Stevie Nicks garb, let out one of her soulful wails.
But of the two, Owen is the one you’re someday going to see headlining his own stadium shows. He’s hunky, compelling, loaded with catchy hooks and riffs that hark to ’70s and ’80s rock, and he’s as locked-in with his group as McGraw is with the Dancehall Doctors. Give him another two albums and he’ll be selling out Staples Center. Give him five without a dip in quality and he’ll headline Stagecoach.
Setlists: Kenny Chesney & Tim McGraw at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, July 14, 2012
Tim McGraw: Felt Good on My Lips / For a While / Down on the Farm / Real Good Man / Last Dollar (Fly Away) > Unbroken / Everywhere / Where the Green Grass Grows > Mexicoma / All I Want Is a Life / Just to See You Smile / Better Than I Used to Be / Let It Go / How Bad Do You Want It / Back When / Something Like That / Southern Voice / Live Like You Were Dying
Encore: The Cowboy in Me / I Like It, I Love It / Truck Yeah
Kenny Chesney: Beer in Mexico / Keg in the Closet > Summertime / Reality / No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems / What I Need to Do / I Go Back / Come Over / Anything but Mine / You and Tequila (with Grace Potter) / Back Where I Come From / Living in Fast Forward > Young / Somewhere with You / Never Wanted Nothing More / How Forever Feels / Out Last Night / You Really Got Me (Kinks cover) / Blister in the Sun (Violent Femmes cover) / When the Sun Goes Down / Don’t Happen Twice / The Boys of Fall
Encore, with McGraw: Feel Like a Rockstar / She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy / Indian Outlaw / Running on Empty (Jackson Browne cover)
The latest from Encore: