TAMPA — Before anyone gets all upset, let me say this first: Pocket-sized country king Kenny Chesney proved to be a solid, likable reason for 47,492 yeehawin' revelers to get wild at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday.
The 44-year-old star worked his tight-denimed tail off during the kickoff gig of his 42-show No Shoes Nation Tour. He invested serious money in a whizbang 365,000-pound stage and dazzling-clear video screens.
But if we're being honest here: The guy many folks were no doubt gabbing about on the tired drive home was opening act Eric Church, a troublemaking Tar Heel who blends Johnny Cash take-that with Metallica bombast.
I'm telling you right now: Church is about to go from big to, as he might say, world-bleepin'-wide. He crushed his 70-minute set, including a somber rendition of hit Springsteen that featured a gorgeous surprise coda of the Boss' own Born to Run.
For three straight tours, Chesney has kickstarted his annual hoedown right here in the home of the Bucs. Maybe it has something to do with that big ol' boat floating in the end zone; his new song is called Pirate Flag after all, and he was sporting an old-school Bucs muscle tee.
Or maybe KC just digs our wahoo vibe — and oh my, can we wahoo after seven-plus hours of tailgating. (Not kidding: Parking lots opened at 10 a.m.; first act, Kacey Musgraves, didn't come on until 5 p.m.)
Chesney's shows are always a blast; that's the whole, escapist point of puzzle-piece smilers like Summertime and I Go Back. But his past two lineups — with such stars as the Zac Brown Band and Tim McGraw — haven't exactly challenged the Tennessee icon. That changes with Church.
During a set that opened with billows of smoke, blood-red lights and air sirens — not your typical Nashville how-do-ya-do — Church came out with trucker cap low and sunglasses dark, shadow-boxing and screaming, launching into Creepin' with a snarl.
"My intent is to burn this son of a (bleep) to the ground tonight!" the 35-year-old Church said. "I need you to give me everything you got! Everything!"
Some were stunned; some banged their heads to the rumble.
Church ripped off the life-affirming Drink in My Hand, his North Carolina twang curling around each word like barbed-wire. On A Lot of Boot Left to Fill, his five-piece band shredded so mighty it reached face-melting, Judas Priestly decibels. It was an awesome racket, and yet that quiet, contemplative rendition of Springsteen showed he wasn't just here to set fires.
Chesney's setlist remains pretty much the same — the chugging Beer in Mexico, the prickly Somewhere With You, the gorgeous On the Coast of Somewhere Beautiful — but his two-hour-plus attack was especially streamlined, focused, intense.
No longer does Chesney zipline over the crowd like a Waffle House Peter Pan. Instead, he just played and played, adding songs to the setlist, trying to do something new, making sure people driving home did a whole lot of talking about him, too.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.