KEG IN THE CLOSET - FREEBIRD LIVE

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KEG IN THE CLOSET

FREEBIRD LIVE

"We are trying to figure out the songs that we're gonna play," Kenny Chesney announced before "going off the set list, not that we have a set list" to the sold out crowd at Jacksonville's Freebird's. "And you're helping us out with that."

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 The girls were stacked eight deep from the stage, with the occasional brave guy thrown in, as the announced midnight the night prior crowd raised their glasses and howled their approval. If the powerhouse entertainer/songwriter had been in town for a week rehearsing his show for the tour kick-off March 16 at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, it was taking the music to the fans that brought the songs to life.From the moment the band hit the first down-stroke of last year's tour event "Feel Like A Rock Star," it was obvious they'd come to play - and play hard. Without Tim McGraw, the song fell into a deeper pocket, driving the musicians to play harder and find the release in what had seemed to be a contrivance.

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 For the folks with their hands in the air, screaming "I feel like a rock star...," the release was palpable. It set the tone, even as Kenny Greenberg carved the melody with a twisting solo that served to ignite the evening.Having a roomful of die-hard No Shoes Nation citizens after a week of an empty arena fed the band and Chesney as well! A single drum beat, a pivot and the band fell into a swift "Beer In Mexico," then a hard-charging "Keg In the Closet." It was full-tilt and flung at the night with abandon.

For the second Keg show of 2013, the bar ran out of Corona Light long before the show was in fifth gear. It was that kind of night, and it was one to be celebrated and remembered.

"Pirate Flag" unfurled loud and proud, cresting on bassist Steve Marshall's pounding throb and a sea of hands waving back and forth as the song of every day insurrection pumped through the sold-out club. With a ska undertow, "Pirate Flag" already had the audience screaming along louder than the band, as Chesney asked them, "We got any Island Girls out there? Any Florida girls? Here's to you guys having a great time..."

The intensity only continued. A thick wall of strum, as four guitars cascaded over "I Go Back," the mid-tempo tribute to the way music holds moments alive and aloft whenever you hear them. As the band fell away for the more hushed verse about "the smell of Sunday chicken after church," Kenny no doubt thought about the friend remembered in that final verse... A teenage friend who'd moved to Jacksonville, and died the way young kids tasting life sometimes do, before any of them would graduate high school.

Equally thoughtful was a bare, acoustic reading of "You & Tequila," which Chesney sent "out to my friend Grace Potter, wherever she is tonight." With a guitar solo like a sunset bleeding out across the water at day's end from longtime bandmate Clayton Mitchell, "Tequila" is a reflective song surrendering to the way the things we have to have can often be the worst thing for us, because their consumption is divine.

It is a theme explored throughout the night, especially during a fraught take on "Somewhere With You," which brought the crowd to a fever-pitch and the more lulling, but no less an agent of heartbreak and obsession "Come Over," which found all the women near the stage nodding with a knowing authority.

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 Not that the messy untangling of love was what the night was about. No, it was the thrill of the uptake, the joy in letting go, the reality of what can be if you'll embrace it. "Big Star" and "Out Last Night" practically bubbled over with euphoria, while Jon Conley's fiddle-strewn opener for "How Forever Feels" reminded people how far Chesney has come from a wide-eyed country star to the man capable of holding 60,000 together for easily the summer's biggest party.With all the grind of stubbing out a cigarette, the band swung hard into the rockin' honky tonk of "Livin' In Fast Forward," the spirits so off the chain Greenberg flipped his guitar behind his head to peel off yet another solo. It was that anything can happen feel of pushing the music and the moment that has made Kenny the only artist to sell over a million tickets each of the past eleven tours.

"Fast Forward"'s crescendo fed into a riding build, all electric guitar and Sean Paddock's pounding toms, that turned once and tumbled into "Young," the free-spirited #1 from No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, which signaled a major turn for the Luttrell, Tennessean's music in 2001.

A dozen years later, "Young" is still a truth and a manifesto that binds the No Shoes Nation together. A song about knowing without relinquishing one's joie di vivre, "Young" remembers when while embracing the reckless abandon of youth with the knowledge gained from living life.

That reckless abandon has always been what ignites a Keg show, and it wasn't long before Mitchell was hunched over his guitar, flecked with sweat and plucking hard at Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride & Joy." The serious blues, both buoyant and braggadocious, percolated with swagger as the guitarist sliced into the melody's hot pink center and left plenty of raw want on the floor.

As if that wasn't enough, the song deteriorated into a "Hey, Y'all Watch This" as Mitchell went for the guitar behind the head, followed by Conley, then Chesney copping the same move. Not to be outdone, Greenberg grabbed a fan's iPhone and executed a blistering slide guitar solo, maneuvering the phone's slender edge up and down the neck of his electric.

Just when it seemed the apex was reached, Conley laughed and began picking his guitar with his teeth, dropping the entire stage into reams of laughter. That sort of churning, whirling good times is what makes the Keg shows such a white hot moment of last minute charge to the just announced venue.Yes, there was "Ice Cream Man" and a Chesney/Mitchell verse toss on the Kinks "You Really Got Me." But it might've been the night's country cover that hit the hardest.

This time good friend George Strait's "Carried Away," delivered with a reverence that suggested who Chesney was when he was, no doubt, playing the song for tips in a bar in East Tennessee, reminded the packed house how much the music really means to the kid from a small town on the fringe of Knoxville.

Returning to the previously scheduled programming, "Out Last Night" bounced along with the crowd sharing vocal duties; "Don't Happen Twice" offered up the possibility of perfection when you see it; "When the Sun Goes Down" had the promise of so many good times to come.

Collecting their momentum for Jackson Browne's "Running On Empty," it was a song for the night - and the music men who've played so hard, given their all and wrung it out after a hard week of prep. In the rearview mirror of all the places Chesney & Co have gone, this was the moment where the truth leaks out. No matter what it takes, true players abide: they bring it all, they give it away and the rise triumphant on the reverie shared and created.

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