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Finding just the right mix

Kenny Chesney takes L.A. fans to the edge and back with his blend of country, hip-hop and even a little Van Halen.

June 19, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

The featured drink sold by sponsor Cruzan rum during Kenny Chesney's current tour is the Cruzan Confusion: mango- and coconut-flavored liquors mixed with pineapple juice. Judging by the pre-show lines at the Home Depot Center in Carson on Saturday, this potion isn't as popular with the country rocker's fans as is his signature drink, a salty margarita. But enough Confusion was consumed to enhance the group bender caused by Chesney's performance.

"Every year we've played in Los Angeles, the party's gotten bigger and bigger," declared Chesney (who shared the bill with up-and-comers Carrie Underwood and Dierks Bentley) early in the set. And crazier, no doubt. The moment the tanned and toned showman appeared on a satellite stage near the arena's rear (a trick he's done before), fans started rushing down the aisles. When Chesney hit the main stage two songs in, concert security was overcome by revelers pushing forward to high-five the star as he showered them with newly minted sweat. The mood of dangerous abandon was as intense as at any hip-hop or heavy metal show.

How could the Academy of Country Music's entertainer of the year, who recently played at the White House and received a pair of eel-skin boots from the president, stimulate more reckless endangerment than Ozzy Osbourne? Chesney reveled in the apparent contradiction -- at the show's climax, he gloated that this was the largest crowd to ever see a country performance in Southern California, only to welcome onstage Eddie and Alex Van Halen, the brothers behind not a country act but one of heavy metal's most beloved bands. This came after his sometime duet partner Uncle Kracker, a rap-rocker from Detroit, loped onstage in a Run-DMC T-shirt to bust some old-school hip-hop moves. Chesney, rapping and rocking along, never lost his country cool.

Chesney's appeal comes from these seemingly impossible combinations. A frat boy Pan, he maps a small free space within country's conservative landscape. In his songs, that space arises mostly in memory or fantasy, the college yearbook flipping of "Keg in the Closet" or the tropical idyll of "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems." Chesney celebrates conventional debauchery -- the trip to Vegas that stays in Vegas, the drunken youth that ends with marriage and kids at 25.

Chesney brings this daydream world to life at his shows. His almost cartoonish joie de vivre, spiriting forward music whose essence is a fiddle played in sync with a fuzzy guitar, inspires his audience to not only abandon its inhibitions but also to beat them dead. Of course, this might be said of any rock star worth his or her salt or of other country rockers such as Faith Hill or Big & Rich. Chesney takes his fans the furthest by relentlessly connecting good times with normalcy. With him at the helm, there's nothing scary about letting go; his warm voice always leads back to the straight path.

Although the video montage that preceded his performance did mention the word "bohemian" (a word Jimmy Buffett, to whom Chesney's often compared, actually embodies), Chesney's heroes are middle-class family folk; even the "Island Boy" he sings of in one hit works a steady job (at a bar, of course) and has a committed relationship.

Chesney's musical approach also injects unruliness into a conservative structure. His band was guitar-heavy and flashy but never played too hard, opting for moderate tempos and Nashville-approved flourishes. Chesney's voice centered everything, and whatever his rock aspirations, it's pure countrypolitan -- a mellow drawl reflective of progenitors such as Glen Campbell as well as more recent revivalists such as Alan Jackson. If his country-committed fans ever feared that Chesney might flee the genre for straight-ahead rock, his timid vocal on the Van Halen classic "Jump" should have completely reassured them.

Not that the audience noticed such nuances. This was a night of release, with a day of recuperation to follow. Midset, Chesney told the crowd that this was the band's best night ever in Los Angeles. But that's the kind of thing many a fraternity brother has said on a Saturday night.

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