Big Country

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

Published June 23, 2008


Mother Nature must be a country fan.

Because for seven hours on Saturday, she kept the potential thunderstorms at bay and let the sun shine on Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Gary Allan, Luke Bryan and about 45,000 fans at Soldier Field.

Soldier Field may be more comfortable hosting Bears games. But the stadium rose to the occasion as a top-notch music venue. The sound was impeccable, the security remained tight but friendly, and the enormous crowd felt almost sparse because of the airy environment.

Maybe that's why Chesney chose this spot for one of the biggest stops on his tour. He appeared to be cool with his decision, playing a 22-song set as the sun finally went down. Opening with "Live Those Songs," it was clear that beachy summertime tunes come pretty easy to Chesney and his 12-man band. (Actually, one was hardly a man. He was part of the brass section, and couldn't have been older than 12.) Halfway through, Chesney boasted that "every year the party just keeps growing and growing," yet the set list and the stage stunts have changed very little in the past three years. His T-shirt from Wrigleyville's Murphy's was new, though, and a nice local touch.

A few surprise guests managed to pique the interest of even the most seasoned Chesney fans. The Cubs' Jim Edmonds and White Sox' Nick Swisher joined Chesney for "Back Where I Come From," the swaying ballad with the small-town-and-proud-of-it message. Then he lured Urban back to the stage for a harmony-infused cover of the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit." And when it came time for Chesney's "When the Sun Goes Down," he brought his dad and uncle out to sing along.

Urban's set was half as long, but just as buoyant. He pulled out all his sure-thing hits without spending much time on new stuff. Even his newest single is old. "You Look Good in My Shirt" has just been released as a radio single, even though it's from his 2002 "Golden Road" album. And when he played it Saturday, he did so by hopping off the stage and wandering through the general admission seating area. It was a bodyguard's worst nightmare, but a fan's dream come true.

And since Urban's wife, Nicole Kidman, was there, watching from the side stage, he enlisted the help of the entire audience in singing a heartfelt "Happy Birthday" in honor of her 41st.

Rimes, in bare feet, short shorts and a tank top, belted out her collection of tunes. And Allan played a too-short set that showcased his gravelly vocals and bad-boy stage presence, taking swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels between every song. Byran, the show's opener, was every bit as engaging as Chesney was. So should the tables turn in another decade, Bryan could very well be tackling Soldier Field himself.


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