Beach balls are a common sight at outdoor concerts these days, their candy-colored signaling of summertime fun serving as a way to distract those patrons who might be too attention-deficient or aesthetically displeased to focus on the onstage goings-on. But Saturday was the first time I’d seen airborne beach balls—plural—outside the gates of a concert, batted around by throngs of people drinking beer, sporting cowboy hats, and waiting to get past security underneath the scorching mid-August sun.
We were at MetLife Stadium for the local stop of the Brothers of the Sun tour, starring chronicler of the down-home good life Kenny Chesney and country juggernaut Tim McGraw as the titular siblings. (Spunky VH1-beloved spitfire Grace Potter and bro-country singer Jake Owen were also on the bill.) And for many of the people crowding through the football stadium’s gates, the show itself was only part of the draw; the revelry had started out in the parking lot, and as Chesney would approvingly note later that day, some of the people waiting to get inside the stadium at 4:15 p.m. had been waiting to get inside the lot for grilling, beers, games of the beanbag game “cornhole,” and general camaraderie at 9:30 that morning.
Partying, particularly in the summer, can be a full day’s work. No artist who has come up in recent years embodies this aesthetic better than Kenny Chesney; even Drake, who brought the acronym YOLO (“you only live once”) to many licensed T-shirts and hashtags, looks like a party piker next to Saturday night’s headliner. Chesney sings of time spent by the sea and happy hours; his tan is the bronze hue that implies lots of long days where “work” amounts to little more than applying SPF 8 and turning over every 45 minutes or so; early on in the night, he busted out “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems,” and that song’s Señor Frog’s–ready charm glowed over even those tracks that were slightly less hedonistic. (There weren’t many of those, though.)
Chesney’s easy, breezy attitude, and the party atmosphere of his live shows, have garnered him comparisons to Jimmy Buffett; Saturday’s set paired AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” with shots of beaches around the world, and not even his set’s 8:40 p.m. start time or the skulls on his sweat-drenched T-shirt could dim the ensuing sun-drenched charm. (Dude could show many a chillwaver how a musician can drown himself in beachy imagery while not making songs that sound like they’ve been rendered absolutely soggy.)
That Chesney can pull off so many songs about doing a whole lot of nothing, though, is a testament to his relatability; he doesn’t come off smarmy like the licensing-happy Buffett, or the increasingly noxious Drake, or like the endlessly frat-partying rock bands who think that adding tinges of reggae to their music signifies their laid-backness. This might be a result of him operating in the country sphere, even though not all of his songs have the twang turned that far up. The shows in that genre I’ve attended, from Miranda Lambert’s arena gigs to Dierks Bentley’s in-the-round gig at Long Island’s former Westbury Music Fair, have all had at least one point—and sometimes more than one point—in which the artist thanks the assembled not just for coming to the show and singing along with the hits, but also for spending money on the ticket. Chesney thanked the audience profusely, as did McGraw. Of course, the people being shown gratitude had helped the headliners get into the record-industry record books—paid attendance for Saturday’s show was 56,285, breaking the record for biggest country show in the New York metropolitan area, set by last year’s Chesney show in the same stadium.
But Chesney’s relatability extends to his music, as well. Saturday night’s atmosphere was that of a party—how could it not be when after the first song, he ziplined from the middle of the stadium’s field level to the stage, a camera tracking his journey— but there were a couple of moments that resembled real talk at the bar or after its last call. “Come Over” is the No. 1 record on country radio right now, and it operates in the late-night drunk-dial idiom of Lady Antebellum’s adult-contemporary monster “Need You Now,” from its strummed lilt to its politely urgent loneliness. “I told you I wouldn’t call, I told you I wouldn’t care/But baby climbing the walls gets me nowhere,” Chesney sings right before uttering the invitation in the title. He explained this song by saying it was “about holding onto all that was good, basically the only thing that was good, and letting go of all the rest”—which might be one of the most mild-mannered utterances about the thrilling nature of breakup sex ever to be uttered, in public or in private. “You and Tequila,” which he performed as a duet with Potter, could be something of a prelude to that track (though it came later in the set); the chorus, which both of them sing, goes “you and tequila make me crazy,” with both the alcohol content of the spirit and the increasingly rancid nature of the relationship at hand being likened to poison. (It’s a fairly jaunty-sounding song, given its subject matter, and the chemistry between Chesney and Potter made the relationship seem more like one that would be depicted on a multicamera sitcom from the ’60s than anything resulting in car crashes or pain.)
The night ended with an encore featuring all four of the day’s performers. McGraw came out first for three songs, including the goofily triumphant down-home anthem “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” with Owen and Potter joining in for an extended version of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” In case you think that its title was supposed to serve as a metaphor for the performers’ collective energy being spent, though, know that this version of the song was a super-extended jam session with a breakdown where the day’s four stars high-fived audience members and autographed proffered items—even as some in the crowd streamed for the exits, hoping to beat the traffic out of the parking lot. After all, every party host worth his salt knows that even the most superlative soiree-throwing skills are nothing if guests don’t show up and have a good time.