Live: Kenny Chesney vs. Jack White

ches.jpgAlarmingly prominent veins on this guy

Kenny Chesney + Sugarland Madison Square Garden August 30, 2007

Before last night's Kenny Chesney show, the last band I'd seen headline at Madison Square Garden was the White Stripes. Kenny Chesney and Jack White are both slightly weird-looking guitar-slinging white guys who have seriously dated (or, in Chesney's case, briefly married) scrunched-up screen-siren Renee Zellweger. On "Livin' in Fast Forward," Chesney famously calls himself "a hillbilly rock star out of control," and Jack White has spent pretty much his entire career cultivating the image of a hillbilly rock star, albeit a hillbilly rock star of a very different stripe. (Both men's hillbilly status is deeply debatable; their rock star status is not.) Both Chesney and White live in Tennessee and wear cowboy clothes and sleeveless T-shirts. Weirdly, of the two, White seems way more concerned with proving his country-music bona-fides, engineering Loretta Lynn's comeback and bringing Porter Wagoner to open for him at MSG. Chesney released a single with Randy Travis once, but he had bigger hits with Uncle Kracker and Jimmy Buffett. The music piped in before Chesney's set last night wasn't country; it was John Mellencamp and Poison and, not kidding, "Party Like a Rockstar." Chesney is the better singer of the two; he's got a rich, twangy baritone that effortlessly rolls around the power-ballads he does better than anyone else in Nashville country. But White is, safe to say, a better guitar player. His set at the Garden last month was all solo: riffs imploding in on themselves, dissolving into noise before snapping back into shape, chords spinning and diving and sputtering. Besides Chesney, three other guitarists were onstage last night; his backup band's ranks changed over the course of the night, but they usually numbered around twelve, or six times the onstage personnel of the White Stripes. The other guitarists played all the solos. I'm not even sure Chesney's guitar was plugged in; it could've just been a prop, something to do with his hands. (On most of the songs where he didn't play guitar, Chesney played air-guitar.) The White Stripes definitely played the better show of the two, a shattering pileup of big-rock poses and small-rock skree. Chesney's was just OK, a generally satisfying if oddly perfunctory and stilted spin through a catalog of crowd-pleasers. But the White Stripes didn't have a single moment quite as magical as the one where Chesney kicked into his best song, "Anything But Mine," a soaring weeper of a love-jam with a singalong chorus so great that Chesney can't resist repeating it maybe five times. Also, the Stripes didn't have anything quite as awesome as the graphic on Chesney's stage-curtain: a skull and crossbones, except the skull had a cowboy hat and a lei, and the crossbones were guitars with skulls and crossbones on them. So there's that.

Chesney might be the reigning CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year, but he doesn't have anything like the natural charisma of, say, magnetic asshole Toby Keith. Chesney's showmanship is totally full of effort: he runs around the stage, spins on his heels, exchanges high-fives with the whole front row, signs autographs from the stage. He hurriedly rushes out his between song patter while his band is still winding the songs down, his voice too loud and his words tripping over each other to the point that I could only pick out the odd phrase: "Big Apple!" "Red Sox!" "Party!" At one point, he thanked every radio station for playing his music even though he had to know that New York has no country station. At one point, he brought out Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, and a couple of other baseball players I didn't recognize. All the baseball players positively towered over Chesney and hogged the stage for a bit, Clemens lugging his kid around and making him high-five Chesney like twenty times. At the end of the show, instead of an encore we got five minutes of Chesney and Clemens signing autographs while his band, all of whom looked like casual-Friday office-workers, pounded out some generic frat-rock riffage. For too much of the set, Chesney focused on his mediocre midtempo chug-rockers, and he never played a lot of his best, most affecting more-emo-than-emo ballads: no "You Save Me," no "Who You'd Be Today," not even the pretty great new single "Don't Blink." This was a slick and professional arena-rock show, but it never really achieved liftoff; every time it approached transcendence, Chesney would pull back into boring goofball partytime shit. He could've done a whole lot better.

Still, it's pretty amazing that Chesney was able to pack Madison Square Garden the way he did last night, given that this isn't a country-music town. Usually, when arena-jamming country-stars come through this part of the country, they head off to Jersey or Long Island or Westchester, or they play smaller venues. When my brother and I rolled up to the Garden last night, the hallways looked deserted, and we speculated that the show might be woefully, embarrassingly underattended. Turned out that openers Sugarland were already onstage and everyone else just showed up on time. The last time I saw Sugarland, they were opening for Brad Paisley at the Nokia Theater, struggling with their attempts to translate their arena-sized set to a midsize club, and I felt safe missing them this time. Judging by the last couple of songs of their set, though, it's not that they're bad performers; it's just that they're totally uncomfortable playing anywhere other than arenas. Jennifer Nettles' carefully calibrated turbosass might not work in every situation, but she knows how to bask in adoration, and amazingly she got a chance to do it last night. And the crowd stayed going apeshit all through Chesney's set; every song was a rafter-shaking singalong. Amid all the hoopla about 50 Cent and Kanye West's dueling September 11 release dates, there's been speculation (some from Chesney himself) that the new Chesney album, Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates, might sneak in and steal the number-one spot from the two of them. New York is 50's hometown and Kanye's adopted hometown, but I'm not convinced that either of them could pack the Garden the way Chesney did last night. Kanye and 50 would do well to worry. Voice review: Chuck Eddy on Kenny Chesney's When the Sun Goes Down

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