By Brian Ives
It was a perfect country concert for the perfect summer Saturday night. Kenny Chesney’s “Spread the Love” tour spotlighted stars from the last three decades of country music, and also showed how the genre has changed in that time.
Last night (August 20), Chesney brought his tour, featuring Miranda Lambert, Sam Hunt and Old Dominion, to New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. In between each of the acts, the P.A. played a list of songs that alternated between top 40 (Jessie J/Arianna Grande/Nicki Minaj’s “Bang Bang,” Flo Rida’s “Low,” Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk,” Katy Perry’s “Roar”) and classic rock (Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle,” the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone”). And that soundtrack kept the party going throughout the afternoon and evening. It’s not what you’d hear between acts at a country show a few decades ago, but in 2016, it makes sense: top 40 radio and classic rock are huge influences on country today, and particularly stadium country.
At about 5 pm, with the sun beating down on the stadium, Old Dominion took the stage to their hit “Snapback.” In Nashville, a town full of solo acts, songwriters and hired-gun musicians, Old Dominion are the rare band that can do it all; they write their songs (and songs for others, including Chesney) and don’t need anyone else to play on their albums beyond their five members. They played a solid set, often going on the catwalk into the crowd, and playing to the Jersey audience with a partial cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown.”
“It means so much to us that this many people showed up to see the opening band,” frontman Matthew Ramsey said toward the end of their set. And by then, the stadium was quickly filling in with the tailgaters. Fans had been partying in the parking lot for hours, but most of them wised up and realized that expensive beers was a fair price to pay to get to see this band, who will surely be higher up on major concert bills by next summer.
Speaking of next summer, it will be interesting to see what Sam Hunt’s touring plans will be by June of 2017. He seems a safe bet to be country music’s next megastar. He has it all: the looks, the sound and the songs, and he proved that last night, by rocking the packed stadium; the fact that it was nearly for his set, which started at 6 pm, is a testament to how popular he’s become since debuting in 2014. His very pop-oriented sound has become the sound of country in 2016; he seems to be at the center of the genre’s zeitgeist. It’s rare for an audience to know most of the words to the songs by a relatively new artist who is third on the bill, but that’s how his set went, as fans sang along to “Break Up in a Small Town,” “House Party” and “Leave the Night On.” The women is the audience (which seemed split 50%/50% between the sexes) swooned and screamed with his every move, and he created a bit of a frenzy when he left the stage to venture into the crowd (flanked by security, of course). He seems like a star already, just two years into his career, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him headlining MetLife by the summer of 2018 or 2019 (if not sooner).
The women in the audience were screaming for Hunt, but they were screaming with the next artist: Miranda Lambert. Even after a tough year, she’s still the queen of country music: she has great songs (many of which she’s written), a great band and a great brand (many artists have “pop-up” stores; how many have their own boutique shop?). More importantly, she seems to speak for the female half of the country audience. Before she hit the stage, the P.A. played Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” set to a video showing a montage of female icons including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Beyonce, along with Lambert (both solo and with her group the Pistol Annies). It was a fitting intro: Lambert is kind of the Beyonce of country music.
She opened with “Fastest Girl in Town,” to roars from women and men alike, but it was the ladies who sang loudly: “My reputation follows me around/Just makes me wanna give ’em more to talk about!”
“Baggage Claim,” “Kerosene,” and “Bathroom Sink” followed, and then she spoke to the audience: “I want you to think about who you are and why you’re here and what makes you unique.” It was a powerful statement, and one that surely resonated with anyone in the audience who wasn’t white (or straight); that number has surely gone up at country concerts in the past few years, thanks to inclusive artists like Lambert and Chesney. Of course, from there, she played her anthem of acceptance, “All Kinds of Kinds.”
She also rocked harder than anyone during the night, via her classic rock covers: Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” and Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” The latter was followed by another of her most rocking moments, “Mama’s Broken Heart.” While no one would ever doubt her country credentials, in a different era she surely could have been a rock singer.
She quieted things down for “The House That Built Me,” and then her new single, “Vice.” For the latter, she requested silence, and started the song over when the audience wasn’t quiet enough. “I promise we’ll get rowdy again.” It isn’t just any artist who can calm down a high energy stadium, but Lambert pulled it off.
And she kept her promise, closing out with “Little Red Wagon,” “White Liar” and “Gunpowder and Lead.” In New York, Lambert has headlined Madison Square Garden, and it seems that she, too, may one day headline football stadiums.
Kenny Chesney, of course, is an expert at playing football stadiums; he has it down to a science. From the minute he hit the stage to “Beer in Mexico,” he frantically ran from one stage to the other, delighting the audience. The man can command a stadium audience in a way that few others (outside of Garth Brooks) can.
His summer anthems (“Summertime,” “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem”) were so perfect for the night — the weather was ideal for an August concert — and the fans sang along with every word, as they raised their drinks (both beers and frozen tequila concoctions).
At one point, he told the audience, “Music and songs are the most powerful things we have in our lives, period!” And as he launched into “I Go Back,” which name-drops John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and Steve Miller’s “Rock N’ Me,” he proved that point. Perhaps a fan in the audience with dreams of a music career will one day cite a Chesney title in one of their own songs one day.
He later referenced Miller again, covering “Gangster of Love” (as a medley with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”).
He was a gracious host to the other acts on the bill: not only were they all able to use the catwalk into the audience and use all of the video screens (some headliners don’t allow that of their openers), he also invited two of them to the stage. Matthew Ramsey and Brad Tursi of Old Dominion joined for “Save it For a Rainy Day,” the song they co-wrote for him, while Miranda Lambert filled in for Grace Potter on “You and Tequila.”
Reminding the audience that he started this tour in May at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, he said that he’d always felt a connection with New Jersey: “You work hard, you play hard and you love hard!” The feeling was mutual, and this surely won’t be the last time he plays the Garden State’s largest stadium.