You could drop all kinds of stats trying to size up Kenny Chesney's Trip Around the Sun Tour, which launched its 2018 run at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium Saturday night.
There's the end zone-swallowing stage, 180 tons thick and half a skyscraper high. There were the 55,292 fans who essentially sold the place out, and the crew in the hundreds it took to make the whole train go.
But Chesney himself might just direct your eyes to the north end of the stadium, where he had the Buccaneers' pirate ship draped in a sail-sized skull-and-bones flag tatted with the words NO SHOES NATION.
Yep: For his first Tampa show in five years, the country superstar commandeered one of the city's iconic structures and branded it in his own image, like everything else in his increasingly Buffett-like empire.
"Five years is too long to stay away from Tampa Bay, and for that, I apologize," Chesney told the masses. "But, if all you people let me tonight — let me and my band and my road family — we're gonna take you by the hand, and we're gonna make love to you all night! And I promise we will make up for all five years we did not come here!"
It was personal for Chesney, kicking this tour off in Florida. Ever since Hurricane Irma ripped through his beloved Keys and Virgin Islands last fall, he's been an active advocate for relief and recovery. He spent most of the week here rehearsing, and was rewarded with his largest audience ever at RayJay.
Rare are performers like Chesney who can handle such crowds with such ease. As newcomer Brandon Lay put it shortly after his opening set: "It's a different sport from the small clubs and honky-tonks that you cut your teeth in."
But this enormity is essential to Chesney, as easy as flexing a well-tanned bicep. From opener Beer In Mexico to burn-it-down, blast-it-out closer She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy, Chesney was all kinds of charged up, twitching and leaping and blowing huge kisses to the crowd, his perspiration glistening in the stadium spotlights.
There was something rather Jaggery about his exaggerated gestures, the way he stomped and preened on No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem, and pursed his pouty pucker on Young. None of his classic chestnuts — How Forever Feels, let’s say —saw him any less engaged with the audience than his new stuff. He was as hyperactive on his 19th song, Setting the World On Fire, as he was on the first, keeping the bro- and blonde-packed pit clinking their cups and chugging the night away.
Is there depth to these waters? A little, yeah. Old Blue Chair was a simple and heartfelt folk song; American Kids, a snappy slice of gypsy coffeehouse pop. And while Chesney said nothing political, he alluded to our troubled times in new song Get Along and 2016's Noise, the accompanying video to which flickered blink-and-you-miss-'em flashes of Trump, Obama, active shooter reports and people tearing at a Confederate flag. A video like that won't solve the world's problems, but hey, that last shot of a surfer at sunset sure looked pretty, didn't it?
This being the tour opener, it didn’t all go perfectly. Chesney flubbed the lyrics to All the Pretty Girls and Big Star, and forgot his bassist during band introductions. Opening-night jitters and such, you know.
But the rest of the lineup went about as smooth as planned. Newcomer Lay closed his first-ever stadium set with a sweeping snippet of U2's appropriately anthemic Where the Streets Have No Name. Middlemen Old Dominion, the ACMs' freshly minted Group of the Year, cranked up the volume, too, with boulder-crushing guitars reverberating to the back of the bowl on Wrong Turns and Can't Get You, yielding to more sunsetty sensations on Written in the Sand and Nowhere Fast.
Chesney’s second-in-command on Saturday was nascent A-lister Thomas Rhett, a human golden retriever who could charm a possum off Puppy Chow. Breaking away from his own sold-out arena tour for this gig, Rhett came out clapping and wiggling to T-Shirt in a crowd-pleasing Bucs tee and matching red kicks, a look befitting the 20-something chart-topper he is.
Rhett infused Renegades and Craving You with hot shots of ’80s power pop and funk, and It Goes Like This with a little ugly-bumpin’ bass. With a live sax behind him, Make Me Wanna sounded like a crisper version of the blue-eyed soul Justin Timberlake ought to be making — as did Crash and Burn, which actually wove in a bit of J.T.’s Suit and Tie. Rhett sang Happy Birthday to a Sweet Sixteener down front, snapped selfies on the stadium floor during Vacation, and had the whole house singing along to crossover hits Marry Me and Die a Happy Man.
"This is like every artist's dream," Rhett said. "You are the dream crowd."
Sentiments shared by the sleeveless king of No Shoes Nation. All week, Chesney said, he's been taking the pulse of the city hand-picked to host his rehearsals, up to and including a spin through the tailgate lot Saturday afternoon.
"Your passion, your energy, your love for the music inspires me like there's no tomorrow," he said. "We've been here since Tuesday, rehearsing, and I got asked every day, 'Why Tampa?' And all you've gotta do is listen to this. This is why, Tampa!"
There was no point measuring the roar that followed. Let's just say that like everything Chesney does, it was big. Much bigger than anyone else.
— Jay Cridlin