By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
To call a concert "intimate" is one of the best forms of praise in the music lexicon, implying as it does a rare bond between performer and audience member. It's normally reserved to describe quiet albums by solo singer-songwriters, or to discuss concerts at venues where the capacity can rival that of a large Thanksgiving dinner.
The sprawling New Meadowlands Stadium would seem like an impossible place to achieve intimacy. This is a place that has its own wine bar in a back lounge, entrances named after corporate sponsors, and the Super Bowl coming its way in 2014.
Pulling into the stadium's parking lot during the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, the atmosphere was not unlike that of a tailgate: tents peppered the lot, lines stretched toward a generous number of Porta-Potties, multiple games of bean-bag toss were set up on the sidewalks leading to the stadium's gates. Grills sizzled; beers clinked. It was tempting to think that the assembled crowd had united behind the "home team" of country music, which seems like something of an underdog in New York. The city hasn't had a full-time country station of its own since the former WYNY flipped formats in May of 2002.
Kenny Chesney's show there on Saturday—the area's largest ticketed country music show since 1983—attracted some 55,000-plus people from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The space felt, if not like a cramped club, at least something more tightly knit than a logo-spangled venue normally reserved for NFL players to smash into one another.
Chalk part of that up to the weather. The rains that have tormented the New York metropolitan area this month hit East Rutherford just as the sun was dipping below the horizon on Saturday; the drizzle forced some people to head under cover for the intermission between the Zac Brown Band's charming, fleet-fingered set and Chesney's arrival. But once the headlining act appeared—on a swing that carried him from the middle of the stadium to the stage, where his band awaited—the assembled had decided, collectively, to sing along with Chesney's Buffett-gone-cowboy fantasies about the good life while the raindrops fell.
It's those broad-brush depictions of how sweet life can be that make Chesney such a charming performer, even with the threat of getting drenched; he's all about finding relaxation at any moment, with his tour's Corona sponsorship allowing fans to pose in beach chairs for photographs displayed on the Jumbotron, and his songs giving appreciative shout-outs to alcohol and the wonderful feeling of having one's ass in the sand and few other worries. In concert he wears the same wide-brimmed hat as his fans, who seem unbothered by the idea of their outfits and their evening's entertainment being too matchy-matchy. Despite the sartorial trappings, though, his sound doesn't hew toward the traditionalist idea of "country music" at all; the solo on "Reality" sounded inspired by Slash's turn on "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," while "When the Sun Goes Down" incorporated the lightest touch of reggae into the mix. The encore was similarly polyglot, with Chesney and Brown's band dueting on Alabama's "Dixieland Delight" as well as a chunk of the Violent Femmes' modern-rock staple "Blister in the Sun."
Perhaps appropriately, the other acts on Saturday's bill came at the notion of "country" from different angles, treating it as a big tent for guitar-centric acts with little use for hip-hop's rhythmic or melodic tropes to huddle underneath. Uncle Kracker covered Kenny Rogers and reminded the assembled that he'd co-written Kid Rock's Skynyrd-Zevon synthesis "All Summer Long," Billy Currington brought a big smile to his arena-ready melodies, and the Zac Brown Band melded the traditional (Alabama harmonies, Charlie Daniels speed, unabashed love of America-the-ideal) and the jammy or New Agey (songs like "Free," which, despite the patriotic images backing it up, is about finding happiness on the cheap) into a cohesive whole that radiated joy. When Brown and his bandmates joined Chesney on stage at the show's end, accompanied by the Yankees' Nick Swisher and a throng of thrilled people, the melding of traditional and new was cemented by the ever-steadier rain.
Beyoncé, meanwhile, is no underdog, although she did try to paint herself as one during the opening stretch of her Sunday night show at Roseland. The four-concert string—dubbed, what do you know, "4 Intimate Nights With Beyoncé"—has the singer performing in a venue far smaller than Madison Square Garden, where she played two nights during her last proper tour in 2009. The show, with a capacity of 3,200, sold out in less than half a minute; those fans who did get in were able to watch her bask in their singing the supremely confident "Irreplaceable" and "Best Thing I Never Had" as fearlessly as they might at home.
Before launching into her album-slash-victory-lap 4—a record full of sweeping ballads and declarations of love, the self, and the love of self that, like Chesney's catalog, has an effusiveness that makes the listener feel like the good life is well within reach—she took the audience on the journey that landed her in the current moment. She recounted the stumbles that pockmarked the early stages of her career (a label that didn't like her, a revolving door leading out of Destiny's Child) and indignantly said that she had "something to say!" when writing the ode to self-net-worth "Independent Women Part I."
"I searched the world and I found myself," Beyoncé told the crowd near the end of her 4 run-through on Sunday. She'd already proclaimed that girls ran the world, led the audience through multiple key changes on the thrilling "Love On Top," and noted that her band was entirely made up of women. The audience cheered, happy that they had, through their dexterity with Ticketmaster's balky servers and willingness to queue on 52nd Street in a still-steady downpour, found her as well.
Beyoncé performs at Roseland Thursday and Friday