He was recently named the Country Music Assn.’s Entertainer of the Year, but very little of Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere in the Sun” tour that stopped into Staples Center Friday night could be called country. There may be a pedal steel guitar and a fiddle player — and he still wears his signature cowboy hat — but what he really wants to do is rock.
He’s preceded onstage by an aural montage of songs by AC/DC, who promises there’ll be “rocking at the show tonight,” Queen’s stadium favorite “We Will Rock You,” Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” and a video of Sammy Hagar welcoming the aud to the show.
A curtain (emblazoned with a tattoo-styled drawing of a pneumatic woman in a bikini astride a leaping marlin) drops, revealing Chesney’s seven-piece band playing the fraternity boogie of “Keg in the Closet” on a two-tiered stage, complete with a catwalk, giant video screens and twin Marshall stacks the size of Hummers flanking it. And Chesney makes his entrance from the rear of the arena, flying over the aud’s heads on a chair.
Like many current rock bands, Chesney pulls his influences from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s, but instead of the jittery, angst-ridden sounds of New Order, Gang of Four or Echo and the Bunnymen, Chesney draws on the heartland rock of John Cougar Mellencamp (he covers “Hurts so Good” with opening act Gretchen Wilson), Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jimmy Buffett.
The riff at the heart of “Big Star” echoes “Brown Sugar”; “That’s Why I’m Here” built to a swaying power ballad climax; and his duet with special guest Uncle Kracker included bits of “Drift Away” and the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.”
But the slick, tightly controlled production has the same connection to the rock shows of that earlier era as Universal CityWalk has to Coney Island: It’s spiffed up, bigger than life and surprisingly impersonal. With his eyes shaded by his wide-brimmed hat — only his finely chiseled jaw is visible — Chesney tends to emote with his arms. He wears a dark sleeveless T-shirt so they’re easily seen, and he keeps them in constant motion: waving and pointing at the aud, outstretched during the ballads and high-fiving everything in his reach.
His recent marriage to Renee Zellweger is alluded to only once (when a picture of her star on the Walk of Fame appears shows up during “Back Where I Come From”). And the baby boomers who make up a large part of the audience like it that way.
Chesney allows them to relive the concert experiences of their youth, only without the messiness and discomfort.
The songs, cloaked in a gauzy nostalgia, only add to this impression. “Live These Songs” references Credence and Mellencamp, “Don’t Happen Twice” is a wistful reminiscence of an old romance, complete with a Janis Joplin song on the radio, and even “The Good Stuff,” where a man runs from a fight with his wife to a local bar, ends up fondly recalling the first kiss, the nervous engagement and bad meals.
When he’s not looking back, he sings of the easy-going good life on his boat in the Caribbean like a Southern-fried Jimmy Buffett.
While little of the evening feels spontaneous, Chesney puts on an energetic and entertaining show, and he repays his fans by remaining on stage after the encore, signing anything that’s put in front of him. They’re promised a good time and have one.
Opening act Gretchen Wilson also straddles country and rock, the latter most pronounced on her covers of Heart and Led Zeppelin. The self-proclaimed “Redneck Woman” can deliver the Patsy Cline styled weepie “When I Think About Cheatin’ ” and hit the honky tonks on the swaggering “Homewrecker.”
She previews a few songs from her sophomore Epic album, “All Jacked Up,” including “Skoal Ring” and “Politically Uncorrect.” She hasn’t lost any of her feistiness; the latter manages to make supporting the troops and reading the Bible sound like acts of rebellion.