in performance: kenny chesney/billy currington/uncle kracker

kenny chesney last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photo by matt goins.

kenny chesney at last night's rupp arena show. herald-leader staff photo by matt goins.

By now, it must be tough for Kenny Chesney to surprise his fans.

Last year, he put out the most introspective album of his career, Hemmingway’s Whiskey – a work that deviated considerably from his usual fun-in-the-sun country-pop. Yet the two tunes he pulled from that recording to open last night’s suitably summery concert at Rupp Arena – Live a Little and Reality – were arguably Whiskey‘s most overtly sunny sounding entries.

That made the concert, Chesney’s first at Rupp in over four years (he did, however, play a surprise club date at the now-demolished Dame in 2008), seem largely indistinguishable from the arena shows the country megastar performed here on an almost annual basis during the last decade.

Chesney fans, all 14,500 of them last night, didn’t seem to mind hearing what was essentially a modified version of the same setlist they’ve been given for years, from the video-savvy pop charge of Big Star to the tropical barroom cheer of Beer in Mexico.

Through it all, Chesney was physically tireless, bounding effortlessly from all corners of a massive stage to a walkway that sliced the arena floor into four sections, two of which were general admission pits. His vocalwork wasn’t nearly as robust. It never has been. But just when one sensed the energy starting to sag, as it did during Living in Fast Forward, Chesney picked the show, the crowd and his seven-member band up and plowed on as if the evening had just started.

So how do you surprise a crowd when it’s been given everything it wanted and expected? Easy. You surprise the host.

And how does one accomplish that? Like this: at the program’s half-way point, marked by the folkish, anthemic 2004 ballad Anything But Mine, out walked George Jones. The George Jones. There was no reason, no occasion. There was nothing to plug. It was simply a cameo by a certified legend that no one – least of all, Chesney – saw coming.

Joking that he has entertained most of the parents of the audience on hand at Rupp, Jones launched into an impromptu version of I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair with Chesney’s band cautiously following him. He then left as unassumingly as he entered before Chesney called him back to sing Jones’ heartbreak classic He Stopped Loving Her Today.

The performance was ragged, frail and tentative to the point of almost collapsing. It was also gloriously spontaneous, which more than compensated. In an age where country music has lost much of its sense of risk, this obviously heartfelt meeting between two generational stars with a bonafide thrill.

A preceding 50-minute set from singer Billy Currington relied largely on the rockish turns of I Got a Feelin’ and the modern honky drive of the opening That’s How Country Boys Roll.

There were a few misfires, too, like a time-killing funk cover of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. But Currington bounced back when he decelerated and allowed the cooler country calm of People Are Crazy (far and away his finest bit of country storytelling) and Must Be Doin’ Something Right to close the set.

Apologies go out to opening act Uncle Kracker. Massive and unexplained patron congestion in the Lexington Center lobby last night before the show translated into waiting times of 30 to 40 minutes for anyone entering the arena. The show, however, went on as scheduled.

We were able to catch the set-closing performances of the Kid Rock mash-up hit All Summer Long and Kracker’s own seasonal single Smile that, like Chesney’s show, didn’t exude much by way of vocal firepower. But the mood and performance spirit seemed earnest and inviting. Too bad we couldn’t hear the whole set.

Few patrons caught in the pre-show audience jam seemed perturbed, though. In fact, there were more grumbles about being late for the beer lines inside Rupp than for the show itself.

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