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Smiles galore, Chesney exudes happiness

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Cal., July 25, 2015

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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Kenny Chesney smiled often during his performance at The Rose Bowl. This wasn't some showbiz smile, either - it was sincere. Chesney appeared to be truly happy to be there. On a hot night in July, when Chesney brought his exuberant The Big Revival Tour to Pasadena, the joy he expressed while performing actually made you forget about all the heat for a couple of hours.

Chesney opened with "Reality" by floating over the audience and singing it in what looked like a modified ski lift. Although he began with a few party songs, like "Summertime" and "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem," Chesney's set really connected with a few of his more reflective songs. He introduced "I Go Back" by extolling the virtues of music. Its lyrics are about how just a few notes or words from a song can take one back to a favorite moment in the past. Chesney also mentioned how he couldn't wait to sing "Wild Child" here in Southern California, since the song describes so many free-spirited California girls.

So much country music today is all about partying and having a good time. And while Chesney has more than his share of such songs in his extensive catalog, he also knows how to put down the red solo cup for a minute and get serious now and again. Tonight's set featured the perfect mixture of summer sun odes and serious meditations.

Co-headliner Jason Aldean brought the fireworks - literally - as his set included the sort of pyrotechnics that might even make KISS proud. Maybe he needed extra visual stimulation because Aldean mainly just stands behind his acoustic guitar and sings. Even so, though, Aldean has a few truly fine songs, which also allowed him put on an effective performance. His ode to 'the rest of the country,' "Fly Over States,' with its map of the U.S. stage backdrop, expresses country pride without getting too overly preachy, while "Crazy Town" pretty much summarizes the insane nature of Nashville.

Aldean thanked his audience for being so accepting of his evolving musical direction, exemplified by the R&B-tinged single "Just Gettin' Started," and proudly announced that "Tonight Looks Good On You," was at the moment the number one song in the country, right before singing it. The fireworks were cool, of course, but Aldean's music already had more than enough pop to get him over.

Brantley Gilbert mines territory similar to Aldean and has even written some of Aldean's biggest hits. However, whereas Aldean's music is progressing from his Southern rock-influenced beginnings, Gilbert seems to be stuck in a stunted, Sons of Anarchy-inspired stereotype.

Most every Gilbert song rocked today with that gruff voice of his, which got old after a while. Gilbert could also use a few pointers in how to talk about his music between songs. For instance, he asked if there were any drinkers in the crowd before launching into "Bottoms Up." He then asked if there were any veterans in the audience before performing "One Hell Of An Amen." Really? Is that the best you can muster? It all came off as pandering to the throng.

Cole Swindell faced the heat of the afternoon with a blue Hawaiian shirt and a good attitude. His short set began with "Hey Y'all," and ended with the kiss-off sing-along, "Ain't Worth the Whiskey." Unlike Gilbert, though, Swindell took time to actually have a kind of conversation with his audience, and it worked. Let's hope Gilbert was paying close attention.

Old Dominion opened the long show with a set that included its current single, "Break Up With Him." The group may be short on true country music in its set, but the band at least got the day off with a likable shot of energy.

Fans of traditional country music would have walked away from this concert scratching their heads. There was no fiddle and little steel guitar, and the banjo sounds that appeared, which was rarely, were mostly used for brief sonic coloring. However, this is what contemporary country music is, like it or not.

But somewhere under all the pounding drums and rocking guitars, there are still some good songs. So if you set your expectations slightly low, you wouldn't have walked away completely disappointed. Kenny Chesney, and his big smile in particular, made sure of that.