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Kenny Chesney validates superstar status in SF debut

AT&T Park, San Francisco, June 8, 2008

Reviewed by Michael Sudhalter

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Kenny Chesney's first-ever appearance in the City by The Bay Sunday night was both an all-out party atmosphere and a validation of the Tennessean's status as a country superstar. Chesney played a string of hits and added a bunch of surprises during a 110-minute performance of the Poets & Pirates Tour. The show, which also featured Brooks & Dunn, LeAnn Rimes, Gary Allan and Luke Bryan, was billed as the largest country music show in the history of northern California.

San Francisco isn't among country's top markets and until a couple of years ago, it didn't have a country station. But the Bay Area's supposed apathy for country wasn't apparent with a near-packed AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Chesney's set was preceded by celebrity video introductions, welcoming fans to the Poets & Pirates Tour. It included Willie Nelson and members of the Boston Red Sox set to Chesney's near-autobiographical "Island Boy."

When he emerged on stage, the first hour was like a replica of his 2006 live album. He moved all around the stage, with rarely a breath between songs like "Young," "Live Those Songs Again," "Big Star" and "Beer in Mexico." He received the only boos of the evening during "Shiftwork." Chesney introduced duet partner George Strait, only to tell the fans he was kidding and that it was "a cruel joke."

Chesney then told the crowd that he was going to get away from the set list, and that's when the surprises started, beginning with substituting his trademark cowboy hat for a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. He brought Kix Brooks on stage and sang a duet of Brooks & Dunn's "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," a song Chesney says that he wished he recorded 15 years ago when he started in Nashville.

Chesney showcased his '80s and classic rock influences by welcoming Steve Miller and Sammy Hagar, both Bay Area-based legends. Instead of singing his songs with the rockers, Chesney combined with Miller on the latter's classic "Joker" and did "I Can't Drive 55"with Hagar, who's been on the bill at other Poets & Pirates stops. Both were impressive, but it was difficult to hear Chesney's voice over those of his duet partners. In addition to the guest appearances, Chesney's acoustic performance of "Old Blue Chair" was one of the highlights of the show. It provided a contrast to the big production that comes with large stadium shows. He also reached into the past, performing "Back Where I Come From," apparently his only mid-'90s hit that's remained on the set list during his rise to the top.

Brooks & Dunn played an impressive 70-minute show that mixed their classic hits along with some new ones. "Hillbilly Deluxe" was among the highlights with Ronnie Dunn's powerful vocals and the lengthy instrumental intro. "Boot Scootin' Boogie" was preceded by a harmonica intro, adding a new twist to the old hit, and the duo welcomed soldiers on stage and released confetti during the patriotic hit, "Only In America."

Rimes stuck with more of her recent hits during a 50-minute set, including "Something's Gotta Give" and "A Good Friend and A Glass of Wine." Rimes closed with abridged versions of her two biggest hits, "Blue" and "How Do I Live," but the best part of her set was getting into the local flavor. She sported a Giants jersey and then covered a bluesy Janis Joplin tune, showcasing her versatile singing ability.

Allan, the only Californian on the bill, covered much ground during his 45-minute set, jumping from one song to the next. He opened with his most recent hit, "Watching Airplanes," but the highlight was the emotional Vertical Horizon cover "Best I Ever Had."

Newcomer Luke Bryan set the tone for the evening during a 25-minute set in which he performed a convincing cover of John Anderson's "Money In The Bank" and his party anthem, "All My Friends Say."