Chesney's big-hat act comes to public TV

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

Published August 3, 2008


Kenny Chesney doesn't wear make-up for just anyone. But one April night in Chicago, it was a must.

The country superstar was on the Northwest Side of the city to shoot his public television debut for "Soundstage" (9 p.m. Thursday, WTTW-Ch. 11), the critically acclaimed live concert television series. It is shot in the highest of high-def, so flaws are not allowed. And therein lies the difference between live and TV: Live shows embrace the flaws and the unexpected. But, as much as "Soundstage" tries to broadcast a live-concert feel, and to bring the artist's show right into your living room, a television taping is staged. Right down to the powder on Chesney's face.

Most of the "Soundstage" shows, like this one, are taped before a small studio audience at Chicago's own WTTW. Chesney's audience was a combination of about 400 guests of the sponsor and winners from radio giveaways, plus a handful of people who knew someone who knew someone. Then there were the models. The producers hire models to grace the center of the front row, a common practice in TV land. "Soundstage" producer/director Joe Thomas said that practice is about having control. "If all of a sudden you have an audience shot with someone in a T-shirt with an R-rated slogan, you have to erase those shots in post production," he said. "And that can be too costly."

Controlled environment Behind the scenes, a show like this can sometimes feel more like forced enthusiasm than true country-style partying. That alone makes it the polar opposite of a real Chesney concert, where spontaneity roams free and the only control he has over the fans is when he starts to sing. The "Soundstage" audience was instructed to "not look bored" and "not make any irritating repetitive noises." (That'd be the hootin' and hollerin' Chesney fans are used to.) All for the sake of good crowd shots from the 11 cameras all over the room.

Behind all those cameras is Thomas, who is actually controlling things in a high-tech truck in the studio parking lot. And his direction helps each cameraman get the best shots. "That's beautiful, seven. Nine, tilt it down more. Six, I don't like that. Get more of the crowd. Nice work, 10. Don't go, stay right there," Thomas shouted continually into his mouthpiece.

Good thing for fans All this work so that millions of people can see what Chesney is like on stage. While his concerts are consistently among the top-grossing live shows, and his summer extravaganza at Soldier Field brought in more than 45,000 people, there are still plenty of music lovers across the country who have never seen his show.

And as Thomas explained, "At big shows, your musicianship gets too big, and 50 percent of the seats are at least 60 yards away. But in an intimate setting, artists can show off and really play."

So for fans, this is a good thing. And for Chesney, penetrating a television audience can't hurt either. (That could explain why Chesney's meager $462 union-mandated paycheck for the taping didn't dissuade him from saying yes.)

Thomas thinks another benefit of a "Soundstage" concert is that when you're watching it, there are no commercials to bust the groove. "You get 56 minutes of Chesney. With absolutely no interruption," he said. "Network music shows just don't get into the rhythm of concert like we do."

Almost total penetration Nicolette Ferri, the show's executive producer, said "Soundstage" airs in 94 percent of the country. "Millions of people will see this show, because we air it over and over in a great prime time slot," she said. Ferri says the country "Soundstage" segments have been a success in Chicago. "It's clear Chicago loves country music," she said. "And Chesney's huge. People just love him."

"Soundstage" had a good run of about 11 years after its initial start in 1974. The series started up again in 2003. And Chesney is not the first big country act to take the stage: Alison Krauss and Travis Tritt were on in 2003; Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Billy Currginton and Sugarland in 2005; and Lee Ann Womack, Julie Roberts and Emmylou Harris in 2007. But the series is better known for bringing classic rock stars such as Tom Petty, Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer and Fleetwood Mac into America's living rooms.

"Chesney just fits. We can't have all country, but we choose artists with mass appeal," Ferri said. She added that this Chesney episode will likely be loved by country fans and music lovers of other genres. "We always bring the viewers fresh music," she said. "And we never say never."


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