When the tailgating starts before noon, you know it’s a party day.
That’s how hundreds of the 46,000-plus who later filled the Georgia Dome prepped for the “Brothers of the Sun” show, a seven-hour bonanza of country-rock anchored by megastars Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw with an opening assist from Jake Owen and Chesney pal Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
Sunday’s marathon, the second night of a 22-date tour stretching through late August (weekends only), featured an exhausting – in a good way – parade of hits from two of the genre’s most likeable poster boys.
The show also managed to nearly break the shrill-o-meter with a surprise appearance from Atlanta’s Zac Brown during Chesney’s set (more on that later) and a cameo from a guy who is pretty comfortable in the Dome – Falcons coach Mike Smith.
Chesney and McGraw, longtime friends who haven’t toured together in more than a decade, are an interesting pair. If Chesney’s pop parallel is Jimmy Buffett, thanks to a handful of songs soaked in tequila and coated with a sea breeze, McGraw’s catalog has a few arteries attached to the heart of Billy Joel’s thoughtful piano offerings.
After opening sets from Owen and Potter, McGraw, trim, tan and muscular in white jeans and T-shirt and a black hat, strolled out for the opening “Felt Good on My Lips.”
As with any stadium show, unless you’re in the first five rows, the concert is viewed primarily on video screens. Smart planning ensured that two super-sharp screens flanking the stage and an adjustable-sized one behind the drum riser provided zoom-level looks at McGraw. Not surprisingly, the cell phone cameras of many females in the crowd clicked as quickly when he turned to walk away as they did when McGraw faced forward. Oh, the perils of being a heartthrob.
Live, McGraw isn’t the unfurled fireball of energy that Chesney demonstrated himself to be; but he’s so casually cool onstage that even when he pulled out a trite, “Let me hear you scream!”, it sounded genuine.
Both headliners amassed substantial set lists for the tour, with McGraw’s zig-zagging from the cranked-up honky-tonk of “Down on the Farm” to the chainsaw guitar grind of “Real Good Man” to the easy-strumming ballad, “Everywhere.” Of course the Georgia-related lyric in the song elicited the usual, “Hey! We live here!” hooting from the well-sloshed crowd.
McGraw sounded strong throughout his 90-minute set, and while it’s always a blast to hear the boogie-woogie piano that signals the summery “Something Like That” and the silly fun of “I Like It, I Love It,” he was most effective when the tempo slowed.
“You can always make up for things. You can always do right,” he said by way of introducing “Better Than I Used to Be,” a heart-poking ballad of redemption. But it was still the sweetly reflective “Live Like You Were Dying” that reigned as the set highlight.
Several in the crowd held up photos of McGraw’s late father, Tug, in his New York Mets uniform, as the country maestro delivered the song beautifully with long-held notes and a noticeable affection for its message.
McGraw’s soulfulness isn’t something that can be taught for the sake of schmoozing an audience; it’s his authenticity that makes him so attractive.
Though this tour is clearly a balanced pairing of country titans, Chesney’s nearly two-hour follow-up set rocketed from the first notes with a roar that felt more like a headliner’s than McGraw’s spin in the spotlight.
Even before Chesney arrived, the audience was amped and shouting along to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” So, when moments later, Chesney appeared at a small stage at the back of the venue for “Beer in Mexico,” then flew over the crowd on a high-backed seat, it was if the king had arrived.
The sound during Chesney’s first few songs was either puzzlingly low or, because the Georgia Dome is more like a giant arena, the sound became trapped inside so the fans singing along drowned out his vocals.
None of that mattered, though, because Chesney is the Ambassador of Happiness. Rare was the moment when a grin wasn’t plastered on his face as he skittered around the stage in his sleeveless T-shirt, tight jeans and cowboy hat, a mass of frantic energy under a schizophrenic wall of strobe lights.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect THIS!” he told the audience about his maiden appearance at the Dome.
Drenched in sweat a few songs into the set, Chesney bounced from “Summertime” to “Reality” to the full-throttle rocker “Live Those Songs” with a contagious energy that ripped through the crowd.
While his persona of the good-time beach bum peeked out – and it’s a persona many men in the audience seem to have adopted given the number of flip-flops spotted – on “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” and his acoustic duet with the leggy Potter on “You and Tequila,” Chesney’s songs offer plenty of meat to chew on.
His new “Come Over” features some grand, U2-like “whoa-oh”’s at the end – custom made for stadium singaglongs – and “Young,” during which he raced around the quadrant of the catwalk jutting from the stage, borrows stylistically from the Book of Springsteen.
The delirious audience was already enraptured by Chesney before Brown, a good friend of the Tennessee boy, came out for an acoustic duet on the Zac Brown Band/Jimmy Buffett hit “Knee Deep” and an unexpected run through Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight.”
The energy rarely flagged during Chesney’s set – though there was a brief moment of deflation after Brown departed. But those who decided to hit the exits early to beat traffic missed what is really the essence of this tour: Chesney and McGraw together.
Starting their encore – fittingly – with their hit duet, “Feel Like a Rockstar,” which featured McGraw popping up from the back of the stadium – the pair traded tunes (“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” from Chesney, “Indian Outlaw” from McGraw) in a gleeful burst of camaraderie.
McGraw said in a recent interview that this joint tour took so long to materialize because of timing. Few would argue that they didn’t time this one perfectly.
Tim McGraw set list
Kenny Chesney set list
Encore with Tim McGraw
Check out more photos from the show…here.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene
Follow me on Twitter: @ajc_music