Having an identity crisis is a hot accessory in Nashville these days. Everyone's flip-flopping for that perfect fit, be it country tinged with rock or pop, outlaw or hick-hop. And if that doesn't work, try something else.
That's what's so refreshing about Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney. On a monster double bill at Ford Amphitheatre Friday, in front of a sold-out crowd of 20,000, the two stars were dead honest about who they want to be. And they won't be changing anytime soon.
For a lot of Tampa Bay folks, this was the concert event of the year. And, hoo boy, did hero and heroine deliver the goods.
Lambert is a buck-baggin', man-eating hellion with cheerleader looks and a psycho-sexy snarl. The 24-year-old isn't selling records like country princess Carrie Underwood. But five years from now, Underwood will be Celine Dion. Miranda will still be Miranda.
Opening with the caustic title cut from 2007's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the proudly curvy Lambert was a wild-haired wonder. Her voice was criminally low in the mix at first, but soon enough her switchblade twang rang clear, and she nailed such hits as Famous in a Small Town and Me and Charlie Talking.
With a five-piece band behind her, and a rippling banner of crossed pistols behind them, Lambert stalked the stage, admonishing the crowd for not giving her the proper energy in return. For nearly 40 minutes, she made no apologies for burning up boyfriends (Kerosene) and drinking and driving (Dry Town).
One of Lambert's last acts was hurling her electric guitar at a roadie — and darn-near impaling the poor guy. Her response? A flip of the hair, a shake of the fanny and the universal hand sign for rock 'n' roll.
As for Kenny, the behatted 40-year-old simply wants to be Jimmy Buffett. His margarita-flavored life plan has made him the most bankable touring act in America, which sure sniffs of selling out. (He even has Buffett's old sponsor, Corona.) But give him credit: A Chesney show has become a Happening, the biggest country show of the year. And thousands of Tampa Bay fans showed up hours early — on a workday no less — to celebrate the man's arrival.
Every aspect of the two-hour show was tooled for audience flip-outs, from the bra tree he uses to hold projectiles, to the Bucs flag draped over the keyboard, to a special appearance by buddy Uncle Kracker. But it never rang false, not once, and that's Chesney's greatest gift. He isn't as puckish as Buffett, but he's a lot more convincing as the Everyman.
With a massive band behind him (including steel drums, banjo and horns), Chesney cranked up the volume and the energy, working the escapist bit (Summertime, Beer in Mexico, No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems), the 9-to-5 line (Shiftwork) and the small-town charm (Back Where I Come From). He was in and out of hits faster than his speed-marriage to Renee Zellweger.
His show was carefully, cinematically calibrated, making people feel as if they're having the time of their lives. When he punctuated the mania with such time-goes-by weepers as Don't Blink and a heart-wrenching There Goes My Life, he made fans feel as if nothing were more important than the here-and-now. You might call it manipulative. Me? I bought the whole dang thing.