Kenny Chesney, Dan + Shay, Old Dominion bring stadium-size joy to Milwaukee at American Family Field

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Kenny Chesney amps up the crowd in Charlotte, North Carolina, on April 30. Photos weren't available for most of the performances at Saturday night's Chesney concert at Milwaukee's American Family Amphitheater.
Kenny Chesney amps up the crowd in Charlotte, North Carolina, on April 30. Photos weren't available for most of the performances at Saturday night's Chesney concert at Milwaukee's American Family Amphitheater.

Kenny Chesney tried to process what it meant to finally be on stage in Milwaukee Saturday night. But it was clear no words would do justice.

“It’s impossible to explain all the energy you feel,” Chesney told 40,000 fans at American Family Field.

Honestly, he didn’t need to say a thing. Across a two-hour set, you could see the immeasurable gratitude on his face. And you could feel the deep appreciation from his screaming, singing fans.

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They were supposed to gather together here on April 25, 2020, back when the Brewers stadium was known as Miller Park. But then, of course, COVID.

Saturday was the first Milwaukee stadium concert since Billy Joel in April 2019. It was Chesney’s first concert in the city since April 2018.

So a couple of songs into Saturday’s show, Chesney vowed that “every soul on this stage” was going to give the fans and this show “every cell in their bodies.”

That was already apparent. The show kicked off with “Beer in Mexico,” the customary, feel-good, sun-and-booze-loving Chesney show-opener. I’d say it was just like fans remembered it — except it was better. Chesney's band, which this year welcomed strong new additions Danny Rader on guitar and Nick Buda on drums, traditionally flexes during the song, but they were clearly so thrilled to be back on stage that the big rock finish really ripped.

And Chesney, in constant movement from the start, seemed the most excited of all. By the fourth song "Here and Now" — the title track for Chesney's latest album, and the name of his tour — his arms were glistening in sweat, and his tank top was drenched. Even during the breezier bits of "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem," Chesney was so energized he was swiftly moving all over the end of the catwalk.

The first time he was stationary behind a mic stand was for "Anything But Mine" — and that was 12 songs and a full 55 minutes into the set. Even during that brief respite, he made sure to keep the energy alive, bringing out Matthew Ramsey and Brad Tursi from opener Old Dominion for a subsequent performance of "Save It for a Rainy Day" — and then was back to running all over the stage for "When the Sun Goes Down."

There were a couple of songs from the latest album in Saturday's setlist. "Here and Now" opener "We Do" had a reception that rivaled the setlist standards, although Chesney seemed almost apologetic while performing the slower new single "Knowing You," thanking the crowd for indulging him, even though it is certified platinum.

He knows people wanted to hear the older hits, and fans and superstar both relished being able to hear them live again.

The crowd singalong for "I'll Go Back" was so bold that Chesney practically leaped 10 feet, and, by the end of the song, had dropped to his knees. After "American Kids" wrapped, Chesney was so moved by the crowd reception he was practically misty-eyed. And a couple of songs that seemed like simple, escapist fare before — "Get Along" and "Everything's Going to Be Alright" — felt more nourishing live in the wake of the collective trauma we've all experienced from COVID-19.

The show ended, as always, with "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" and Chesney doing a marathon autograph session for fans in the pit. One fan he brought onstage to give an autographed Brewers helmet seemed so elated it looked like she was about to explode. And then before leaving the stage, Chesney promised the Wisconsin branch of his No Shoes Nation fan base that he would see them soon.

Again, that could have gone unspoken. There's no way he's going to let another four years go by before playing a stadium show in Wisconsin again.

Dan + Shay bring the love songs and Bucks love

Country-pop duo Dan + Shay played a big Milwaukee show just eight months ago, selling out Fiserv Forum. Immediately preceding Chesney with a 70-minute set Saturday, Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney got to play for an even larger crowd in Brew City.

Except it wasn’t completely their crowd. So the musically milquetoast, moon-eyed ballads met with big singalongs in town last September were greeted largely with disinterested chatter among Chesney fans across the stadium.

But Dan + Shay would not be deterred, buttering up the crowd with flattery and a “Bucks in seven” shoutout from Mooney. They also took a risk playing “Glad You Exist” with a lone acoustic guitar; it paid off. And their biggest hits — “10,000 Hours,” “Speechless,” “Tequila” — had the crowd’s undivided attention, with Mooney closing out the latter with a stirring vocal note as strong as a shot of Patrón.

Old Dominion honor Taylor Hawkins

Old Dominion performs at Milwaukee's American Family Field on May 14. The group was one of three openers for country star Kenny Chesney in the first stadium concert in Milwaukee since 2019.
Old Dominion performs at Milwaukee's American Family Field on May 14. The group was one of three openers for country star Kenny Chesney in the first stadium concert in Milwaukee since 2019.

Old Dominion was the only opener attached to the lineup when the Chesney show was first announced in 2019 to actually perform Saturday. They also must be Chesney’s favorites — this was their fourth opening gig for him in Wisconsin since 2015.

Don’t be surprised if they get the prime opening slot next time. Old Dominion scored the first stadium-wide singalongs during their hour set with “Break Up With Him” and cheeky new single “I Was on a Boat That Day,” with guitarist Trevor Rosen rocking an accordion at the end of the catwalk.

It was one of a handful of curveballs that distinguished the band from serviceable sets of the past. Brad Tursi busted out some smoking blues guitar licks leading into “Can’t Get You,” and relished frontman duties for a cover of Keith Urban’s “Wild Hearts,” a song he co-wrote.

And frontman Matthew Ramsey led the band through a soaring cover of Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly,” a tribute to recently passed drummer Taylor Hawkins, whose picture flashed on the big screen at the end.

Carly Pearce sets a high bar

Carly Pearce, shown onstage as part of the Kenny Chesney show in Tampa, Florida, on April 23, was the first opening act at Chesney's concert at American Family Field in Milwaukee May 14. Photos of most of the performances at the Milwaukee concert were not available.
Carly Pearce, shown onstage as part of the Kenny Chesney show in Tampa, Florida, on April 23, was the first opening act at Chesney's concert at American Family Field in Milwaukee May 14. Photos of most of the performances at the Milwaukee concert were not available.

Anyone who made it to their seats on time was rewarded with the best songwriter and singer of the night, Carly Pearce, the reigning ACM and CMA female vocalist of the Year.

Her voice sounded superb in that massive stadium, but it was the words she was singing that were so striking. The half-hour set primarily focused on her terrific 2021 album “29: Written in Stone,” which partially chronicles her divorce from fellow rising country star Michael Ray.

Under the warm sun from that huge stage, she turned emotionally naked gems like “What He Didn’t Do” and her Ashley McBryde-featuring “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” into cathartic, reassuring anthems. Her genuine excitement — she talked about achieving her lifelong dreams, and going from cleaning Airbnbs to being a Grand Ole Opry member — likely contributed to the emotional shift live.

The set also recalled another promising female country artist who had that first Chesney opening slot in this same ballpark a decade ago. That was Kacey Musgraves, who's since become a culture-shifting, arena-headlining superstar. Saturday's performance suggested Pearce could end up in a similar place.

The takeaways

  • After waiting more than two years for this night to finally happen, it was only right that Chesney and his fans were blessed with impeccable weather Saturday for all the tailgating and the show itself, where the roof of American Family Field remained open the whole time.

  • That marathon autograph session that Chesney does at the end as the band rocks out lasts six full minutes, or at least it did Saturday. There was no way to keep count of the number of shirts, hats and flags he signed. Then after wearing out his wrist, he posed for a picture onstage with his band and crew and a dog who was way chiller about being on stage at a concert in a baseball stadium than my dog (and probably your dog) would have been.

  • Right after their opening song “Make It Sweet,” Old Dominion frontman Matthew Ramsey tossed his electric guitar 10 feet to a roadie — who dropped it. But Ramsey just laughed it off.

  • Favorite fan interaction: A guy in my row dropped his baseball cap over the railing on the club level. With help from his friends, he managed to get someone’s attention below, who tried tossing the back up. Gravity fought back but after several attempts the guy managed to grab his hat, and patted his hand on his chest in gratitude.

  • This was the first stadium concert in Milwaukee since Billy Joel in April 2019 — but the Brewers are making up for lost time this year. With Eric Church May 28, this is the first time Milwaukee has had two stadium concerts in a single month since June 1975. And Motley Crue and Def Leppard are coming up at American Family Field on July 17.

Kenny Chesney setlist

1. "Beer in Mexico"

2. "Reality"

3. "Til It's Gone"

4. "Here and Now"

5. "Summertime"

6. "We Do"

7. "Pirate Flag"

8. "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem"

9. "Somewhere With You"

10. "I Go Back"

11. "Get Along"

12. "Anything But Mine"

13. "Save It for a Rainy Day"

14. "When the Sun Goes Down"

15. "Knowing You”

16. "All the Pretty Girls"

17. "Living in Fast Forward"

18. "Young"

19. "Noise"

20. "American Kids"

21. "Setting the World on Fire"

22. "Everything's Going to Be Alright"

23. "Out Last Night"

24. "How Forever Feels"

Encore

25. "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy"

Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or plevy@journalsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Kenny Chesney, Dan + Shay, more bring stadium-size joy to Milwaukee