Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw Reliant Stadium August 4, 2012
Outside the rodeo, Saturday night's "Brothers of the Sun" date with Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw will no doubt go down as the biggest single concert (not festival) to take place in Houston this year. That means two balding, behatted guys in their forties will have sold more tickets than Coldplay, Gotye, Drake, LMFAO, Van Halen, Roger Waters, Aerosmith, Kiss and Mötley Crüe, and Radiohead.
Even Bieber had to settle for Toyota Center...for now.
Saturday night's show, long on alpha-male flexing and not entirely lacking either introspection or actual country music, traded spectacle for scale. With hooks and choruses this size, no explosions or fancy video-screen wizardry was necessary.
Instead, Chesney rode one of those NFL-style overhead cameras from the satellite stage in the middle of the stadium to the main platform, and McGraw signed a few autographs (a hat, a cardboard fan) between verses. Ka-ching.
Based on both men's physical condition, they should have called this the "Brothers of the Gym" tour. McGraw, clad in an impossibly tight white T-shirt/jeans ensemble, opened with several songs as muscular as his physique: Driving electro-hard rock ("Felt Good On My Lips"); Technicolor multi-part harmonies ("For a Little While"); grinning, good-humored '90s country a.k.a. microwaved Southern rock ("Down on the Farm"); bluesy peacock chest-puffing ("Real Good Man").
Things didn't settle down, a little bit, until his 1997 hit "Everywhere," a sweet, steel-heavy ballad and not the last time McGraw would either directly or indirectly invoke George Strait. Throughout his 90-plus-minute set, he radiated a feeling of tightly controlled emotions, squeezing himself into a human fist like a cobra about to strike.
The acting skills McGraw learned for the 2004 film Friday Night Lights, which he mentioned filming in the Astrodome next door, were very much intact. Although his seven-piece band certainly did in clenched-teeth rockers "How Bad Do You Want It" and "All I Want Is a Life," McGraw never quite cut loose, or broke character perhaps, but said a lot with a few simple arm movements.
Extending his arms or a quick chest-thump were enough punctuation for the messages in his songs, predominantly a string of affirmations ("Better Than I Used To Be," "Unbroken") or nostalgic reflections.
Not coincidentally, these were the closest things his set came to old-school country music. The mostly acoustic shuffle "Just to See You Smile" made a nice smaller moment among all the Big Music, while "Back When," an amusing notion about the way words can change, had some in the crowd literally two-stepping in the aisles.
For much of the show, McGraw had a look in his eye like he was contemplating the faraway horizon. It was a proper vantage for him to gaze upon some of the more cinematic items in his catalog, songs that also usually prompted the biggest singalongs.
He pondered his place within the Southern pantheon and gave an LSU shout-out in the R&B-tinted "Southern Voice," and stayed out of shamelessly tearjerking territory in the genuinely moving "Live Like You Were Dying."
Then McGraw left himself plenty of room to stomp and swagger all over the Stonesy "I Like It, I Love It" and almost primal "Truck Yeah" in his encore, closing out his portion of the evening with a crushing Led Zep riff and a candidate for hashtag of the year.
Kenny Chesney's arms aren't quite as chiseled as McGraw's, but he must do a lot more cardio. The collar of his sleeveless shirt was soaked through after exactly one song, "Beer In Mexico," with which he opened his set on the satellite stage halfway across the stadium floor, then hitched that skycam ride across the crowd to the main platform in time for "Keg In the Closet." If someone hasn't invented a Kenny Chesney drinking game yet, someone should.
After those two straight rockers, we got "Summertime," another song that signaled nothing but sandy beaches and good times ahead. If the tropical breezes at the palm-shaded resorts pictured in his set's introductory video (co-starring Joe Walsh, Matthew McConaughey and Willie Nelson) had an actual sound -- warm, friendly, invigorating -- it would be a typical Kenny Chesney song.
And if God hadn't tapped Chesney on the shoulder and said, "this one's a singer," he could have easily been a football coach or a drill sergeant. He just seems pumped, and who could blame him? Both his body language -- he did way more running while onstage than McGraw, who usually sashayed or sauntered -- and his remarks to the adoring crowd were all about how excited he was to be there to deliver his musical message.
Ironically, that message happens to be almost exclusively about relaxation.
"Why don't we all just check out for a couple of hours?" he said after another one of his mission statements, "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems." In a way, there is a very existential core buried within Chesney's songs (very few people actually get to experience that sort of permanent-vacation lifestyle), but he is so persuasive and enthusiastic about the way that he sells it that you can almost smell the salt air in songs such as the reggae sunsplash of "When the Sun Goes Down."
But Chesney does allow a few clouds to darken his cloudless skies every now and again. Of course it's nothing life-threatening, but there's a real chill in the dying-relationship drama of his latest single, "Come Over." Appended with a chorus of some stray whoa-oh-ohs from the last two Kings of Leon albums, it is now resting at the top of the Billboard Country Songs chart.
"You and Tequila" is the rare song of his that presents booze as anything other than an after-work diversion; sung as an acoustic duet with opener Grace Potter (whose alt-blues band the Nocturnals made the most of the half-hour it did get), it was a pensive moment in a set full of songs about strictly living in the here and now.
And like McGraw, Chesney has a considerable nostalgic side. It can creep into his uptempo material ("Young"), but his ballads are especially rife with images of past memories, whether of favorite classic-rock songs ("I Go Back") or a whirlwind relationship ("Anything But Mine"). But he saved his most introspective moment until the very end, a heartfelt tribute to school-age football players (including himself), "The Boys of Fall."
As a postgame picture of uniformed Chesney and his parents flashed on the video screen, he brought a young boy onstage and crowned him with a Houston Texans helmet. Perhaps after the near-relentless pace of the previous 90 minutes, there was simply nowhere left to go.
Except one. Of course there's no way the two Brothers would allow their fans to sit through a six-hour concert and not do a few songs together. So they did, with an encore of their recent duet "Feel Like a Rock Star," "Indian Outlaw," "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," and a nice Texas-size surprise in George Strait's "The Fireman."
Some of us in the audience couldn't help remembering that King George will be at Reliant Stadium soon enough (next March), but surely even McGraw and Chesney themselves will admit he's probably up to the job.
Personal Bias: I respect McGraw and Chesney's showmanship and work ethic more than I admire their artistry, but I am abso-fucking-lutely learning to love the virtues of "Truck Yeah."
The Crowd: A good guess would be about 60,000 people, young to middle age, Caucasian, skewing female and ready to party. Dressed for a day at the beach or a night on the town: Khakis and flip-flops; sundresses or cutoffs and cowboy boots.
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Overheard In the Crowd: Assorted screaming.
Random Notebook Dump: Chesney brought out his buddy, birthday boy Roger Clemens, onstage during "Out Last Night."