Kenny Chesney and friends throw a party for more than 50,000

TAMPA

The parties broke out early all over town: the college hoops fiesta at the St. Pete Times Forum, the golfing tourney at Innisbrook, scattered backyard salutes to the life-affirming 80-degree climes. And as Saturday wore on, all those good times converged into one mighty yeehaw at Raymond James Stadium as country king Kenny Chesney and his superstar friends put on a show.

Maybe it's the weather; maybe it's a long run of lousy news here and abroad. But, man, oh, man, did we need a day like this one and a concert like that one, with beach balls and beer fumes gamboling over a crowd of 50,548. (If you're curious, U2 has the joint's all-time attendance record, football games included, at 72,000.)

Hick-hop grunt Uncle Kracker and neo-trad cutie Billy Currington were first to entertain the sun-washed fans, who were allowed into the stadium at 3 p.m. — although many had been tailgating for hours before that. Nevertheless, by the time the penultimate act, the jam-happy Zac Brown Band, took the stage around 6:30 p.m., the crowd still had the juice and verve to welcome them as if they'd never been happier to see anyone in their lives.

And why not? This was Life Appreciation Day. Sure, it might have been a little cheeseball when Georgia's Zac & Co. merged America the Beautiful with mondo hit Chicken Fried, but it sounded sweet and genuine, as did a massive crowd sing-along that ruffled the sails of that end-zone pirate ship.

This show couldn't have come at a better time. Much like hair metal, country thrives on our simplest pleasures and pains. It's comfort food that doesn't pretend to be anything but. Zac Brown understands this and then some: One of the day's hottest tickets was a preshow "meet-and-eat" with the man, who doesn't just entertain his throngs but stuffs their craws, too.

Although ZBB could pick and strut for sure (including a ferocious cover of The Devil Went Down to Georgia), it excelled at slower grooves, on display during bittersweetly beautiful As She's Walking Away (from 2010's You Get What You Give) and a merging of Free and Van Morrison's Into the Mystic.

When the sun finally went down on a show that spanned six hours, the masses — looking good in muscle shirts and cowboy boots with matching thighs — needed a goose. Enter Chesney, whose "Goin' Coastal" show was as informed by AC/DC as Alan Jackson. (Then again, chill-inducing new song Somewhere With You, from new album Hemingway's Whiskey, sounded a bit like Bono and the boys.)

First appearing harnessed high above the 50-yard line, Chesney slowly zip-lined to the stage and tore off a few cookers, including Reality and Live Those Songs. The Tennessee star's vocals were perilously low in the mix at first, a messy muddle for sure, but by the time Summertime and Beer in Mexico cha-cha'd around, the Sleeveless Wonder was coming in clear.

The only artist in any genre to sell more than 1 million concert tickets for eight consecutive summers, Chesney is compared to Jimmy Buffett, especially since's J.B.'s old Corona beer sponsor is now K.C.'s. But there's a big difference between the two entertainers, as different as a Caribbean getaway and a weekend in Disney. Buffett is the well-heeled beach bum who's already found a hammock; Chesney sings for the 9-to-5er constantly in search of one.

For more than two hours, the 42-year-old wanted everyone to see how hard he was working, sweating, shaking his hips and running like mad. His songs were mostly commoner's laments and fantasies. For the chummy happy-hour hit When the Sun Goes Down, Chesney even brought out portly duet partner Uncle Kracker, who looked like he wandered in from a Jiffy Lube office party.

With a full moon looking on, Chesney finished his set with lackluster gridiron dirge The Boys of Fall, then came back for a wild, loose encore that included the awesomely stupid She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy and, with Zac Brown joining in, a cover of Alabama's Dixieland Delight, ZBB's own Knee Deep, the Rolling Stones' Jumpin' Jack Flash and Tom Petty's Runnin' Down a Dream. And still not sated, the fans screamed for more. After a day like this, who could blame them?

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.

Kenny Chesney and friends throw a party for more than 50,000 03/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 20, 2011 2:41pm]

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