Kenny Chesney at Target Field, 7/12/13

Kenny Chesney at Target Field, 7/12/13
Photo by Mitch Schwanke

Kenny Chesney
Target Field, Minneapolis
July 12, 2013

Kenny Chesney sings songs about fun that aren't much fun. Even with thudding arena drums insisting that something exciting must be happening somewhere, Chesney's boozy, sun-dazed escapism lacks any reckless spark or clever wit, coming across less laid-back than sedate -- just the thing if you're embarrassed by the trashy tastelessness of your parents' Jimmy Buffett records. Whether the past experiences for which he's waxing nostalgic are frat parties or love affairs, Chesney is almost always sure the best times are behind us, a thesis that his nearly two-hour performance at Target Field supported all too well on Friday night.

Of course 43,940 people would disagree with that. That's a new Target Field attendance record, and a slight uptick from the 43,897 folks who paid to see Chesney in the same venue last summer. Those numbers shouldn't surprise you: In his low-key way, Chesney has come to dominate country music over the past decade. Even if you subtract the chaperoning moms and bored boyfriends from Friday's totals, a Kenny Chesney concert is clearly many people's idea of a good time.

And sure, on a nice July night after a few beers, why shouldn't it be? After all, from the goofball redneck pride of "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" (a 1999 oldie hauled out for an encore) to his latest single, "When I See This Bar" (which could resonate with anyone who's been drunk often enough in the same building), he's accrued a durable if not exactly distinctive back catalog. You could even dance if you really wanted to.

The show itself started nearly four hours before Chesney's 9 p.m.-ish set, with three openers: sharp critics' darlin' Kacey Musgraves, blah country-pop balladeers the Eli Young Band, and jammy crowd-pleasers the Zac Brown Band. Even then, Chesney took a while getting started. First came his Corona Light commercial, broadcast on the big screen and concluding with a pre-recorded message to fans that seemed redundant since the man himself would be onstage in a matter of moments. (Even taking fan anticipation into account, applause for an ad is never not depressing.) But it would be a matter of more moments than we'd expected, with an extended, featureless instrumental build-up before Chesney materialized, his sleeveless gray T-shirt emblazoned with a white skull and crossbones, to instruct each of us to do whatever needed to be done to "Feel Like a Rock Star."

Guy's a pro, for sure. He expertly stoked our collective local ego, reminiscing about a birthday he once spent in Minnesota, exchanging a cowboy hat for a Twins cap mid-set, halting the traffic-beating rush for the gates during show-closer "The Boys of Fall" by inviting Christian Ponder onstage to give a fan an autographed helmet. Maybe the "No Shoes Nation Tour" is a name that brings to mind third-world poverty rather than a footloose island resort, but in one sense it wasn't inaccurate: This was an audience whose members identified as part of a community.

And maybe that sense of belonging justifies spending $40 to $80, plus Ticketmaster fees and parking, to hear Chesney sing about "Beer in Mexico," instead of saving toward an actual vacation, where the wateriest domestic in the lamest tourist trap would have more of a kick. "Too old to be wild and free still/ Too young to be over the hill," he sings on that one -- a genuine midlife dilemma that deserves either cranky resistance or soulful scrutiny, not just an accepting shrug.


At one point in the evening, Chesney praised us all for "loving music and loving life." But his scope of what both music and life have to offer is sadly modest: a catchy tune and the wistfulness that settles in during a two-beer buzz late on a summer afternoon. It's a narrow vision encapsulated on "Reality," a listless catalog of the ways people free themselves from everyday tedium, as peddled by a man whose own reality presents him with so many more opportunities than ours, and it reduces leisure and fantasy to the pettiest of diversions from the dullest grind of a life. Not my idea of a good time.

Personal Bias: I've been defending pop country from dismissive snobs ever since Garth Brooks was on his way up, so I'm especially contemptuous of empty-hatted snoozers like Chesney for making my job harder.

The Crowd: A few families (often with teenage daughters), some girls'-night-out packs, and plenty of younger couples who were seriously like Friday Night Lights-level hot.

Overheard in the Crowd: "They should have escalators here," from a huffing, puffing middle-aged guy headed up the stairs on the (wrong) left side to get more beer.

Random Notebook Dump: Their material can be lightweight, but the Zac Brown Band's instrumental flash was pretty fun, especially on their closing medley of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and the Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

Set List:

Feel Like a Rock Star
Beer in Mexico
Pirate Flag
No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems
Somewhere With You
I Go Back
You and Tequila
Living in Fast Forward
How Forever Feels
Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven
Big Star
Don't Happen Twice
Never Wanted Nothing More
Anything But Mine
When I See This Bar
Out Last Night
The Boys of Fall

She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy

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