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Concert review: Kenny Chesney is a pro, but his show at AT&T Park was a bit of a bummer

Updated: 07/20/2009 03:27:33 AM PDT

There wasn't enough Corona in San Francisco's AT&T Park to wash the bad taste out of 40,000 country fans' mouths when they arrived at Saturday's big country show to learn of the last-minute cancellation of second-billed Sugarland.

Signs posted by the gates said Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles had lost her voice in the recording studio; to make up for it, the signs promised longer sets by Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and headliner Kenny Chesney. Though refunds were offered, many didn't even see the signs. And the vast majority of those who did see them opted to come in.

Yet rather than go the extra yard and give something special — as Chesney did last year at the ballpark when he brought out Steve Miller and Sammy Hagar for some spirited duets — Chesney delivered his stock 90-minute show and wrapped things up at 10:40 p.m. Throw in overtaxed restrooms, less-than-helpful security, sonic shortcomings and decidedly untropical weather — Chesney even put on a shirt with sleeves for his final number — and this stop on the Sun City Carnival tour was a bit of a bummer.

For sure, Chesney, the biggest draw on the country circuit today, is a pro. The staging was technically accomplished, with state-of-the-art lights and video, and he and his big band cranked out a lot of noise on a set list packed with familiar singalong hits — most on the theme of partying, rose-colored nostalgia, the beach, or some combination

there of. But there was little magic.

You've got to give him points for his entrance: Chesney — clad in his signature sleeveless T and white cowboy hat — emerged from a hole in a tent over the sound board in a chair suspended from a cable, then traveled high overhead, singing "Live Those Songs Again" all the way, before alighting on the catwalk that extended from the stage. Pretty cool.

But once he got down to earth, it was standard Kenny, throwing one fastball after another with few change-ups or curves: "Summertime." "Beer in Mexico." "Keg in the Closet." "Out Last Night." Each a serviceable party-hearty anthem on its own, but a bit redundant all in a row.

Two of the best moments came on songs composed by Mac McAnally, the soulful Mississippian who was present as a member of Chesney's band and came up to share lead vocals on his tunes "Down the Road" and "Back Where I Come From."

That was about as introspective as it got, though. The sensitive beach poet of "Be As You Are" and last year's "Lucky Old Sun" was not in attendance. This was party music, pure and simple.

Whereas Chesney's large ensemble — including a horn section led by L.A. session great Jim Horn — could power past some of the sonic limitations of AT&T Park, Miranda Lambert and her little country-rock combo had a tougher time.

It's too bad, because the Texas native is one of the great talents in country music today, a powerful singer and an even better songwriter, capable of clever insights ("Famous in a Small Town") or thrilling intensity ("Gunpowder and Lead"). She's also got an ear for a great song, as evidenced by this set, which included songs by Gillian Welch, the Faces and Wilson Pickett.

Though she is best known for her shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later rockers, a poignant "More Like Her" showed she was also capable of more emotional range than anyone else on the bill.

Lady Antebellum, currently atop the Billboard country chart with "Run to You," performed admirably in the opening slot, though there's only so much you can do when you're playing in broad daylight in center field of a half-empty baseball stadium.

That said, the emerging band already has a bunch of memorable songs, and its 40-minute set suggested it could stick around for a while.


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