Picture a Steelers tailgate party with young people in summer cowboy wear in place of older black-and-golders. Now subtract the people who come for the football not the drinking. Then, add 50 or 60 degrees of hot sun to make that alcohol boil up inside.
That's the pre-game of the Kenny Chesney No Shoes Nation tour that rolled though Heinz Field.
Part of the game is managing to stagger through the aluminum-and-glass-strewn parking lot -- preferably with shoes on -- to actually make it into the concert.
Some had the show go on without them, but most made it in Saturday for this seventh edition.
This summer holiday doesn't happen just anywhere. In the past week, the country caravan played the amphitheater in Cleveland to 20,000. Here in the Paris of Appalachia, as it's been called, it's up near 50,000.
Kacey Musgraves, an up-and-comer from East Texas, was looking at about 5 percent of that when she hit the stage in the heat of the day at 5 p.m. She and her band didn't really heat things up much further. Her music is more suited for coffeehouses than even roadhouses, but if you paid attention you picked up her clever, poignant songwriting on "Follow Your Arrow," "Merry Go Round" and other songs from her major-label debut.
Wearing heart-shaped sunglasses, she had a sweet, understated delivery that was too small for the occasion (unlike the more fiery Grace Potter last year).
The Eli Young Band has been around the block a few times and had the benefit of playing to more people, many of whom knew the songs.
The Southern rock band, led by humble frontman Mark Eli (who kept talking about how lucky they are), scored with hits like "Skeletons" and "Crazy Girl" and tapped into some classic-rock love with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps" and a coda of Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" attached to "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." The new song "Drunk Last Night" may hit people more on Sunday morning.
Eric Church, a hardened arena headliner, took it up 10 notches, arriving on stage at 7 p.m. with his signature baseball cap and aviators to a gentler sun and rowdier crowd doing his gritty rocker "Creepin'."
"Always my kind of people up here," he said, and the feeling is mutual. He's a fine musician and the real, raw deal -- the wild side of Steve Earle -- to the point where not liking him on some level would border on un-American.
Mr. Church, whose music does not evoke any kind of church whatsoever, has lots of wild cheering points built into his tunes, like when he sings "She's got a rock, and I'm gettin' stoned" or "Jack Daniels kicked my a-- again last night." During that last one he even mentioned Mr. Smalls.
He managed to hold a stadium of people in his palms on solo acoustic versions of "Like Jesus Does" and "Love Your Love the Most" and then fire them up with the chugging "Drink in my Hand" sing-along, during which he literally threw down the two big cups handed to him.
Every song was Americana gold and you could tell they made the guys feel tougher and the gals feel sexier. His set climaxed with the one-boot salute on "These Boots" and the stadium rocking on his brilliant hit "Springsteen" that wrapped around a verse and chorus of "Born to Run." It's only a matter of time before this is all the Eric Church show.
The headliner was his usual little ball of energy, forgoing the flying apparatus to just run out with "Feel Like a Rock Star." That description was far from accurate, as rock stars these days don't generate nearly as much adoration and enthusiasm as he got at Heinz Field.
Of course, a good many of his songs are as much rock (or more) as they are country -- or at least what we knew as country when it was hyphenated with a "western."
Mr. Chesney, tanned and toned in a black skull tank top, didn't waste time getting to his own drinking songs ("Beer in Mexico," "Keg in the Closet") and feel-good summer tunes ("Summertime" and the Buffett-like "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems"). He called the latter the perfect accompaniment to the boat parade he saw on the river when he came into town on Friday.
He ran around like an excited puppy for almost two hours, saying all the right things (about the crowd, the city, the Steelers), slapping hands and giving the ecstatic fans all their favorite songs -- "Young," "How Forever Feels," "Never Wanted Nothing More," "Anything But Mine," etc. His baritone sounded as smooth as the recorded versions.
Special to this set was a spirited Church and Chesney duet for the new single "When I See this Bar."
He and his crack band took it on home with a big jam on "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," climaxing another joyful and profitable night with country's most bankable star.
Then it was back out to the parking lot where it looked like Hurricane Kenny ripped through the North Shore. Hopefully, it will be cleaned up by the first Steelers pre-season game.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2576. First Published June 23, 2013 2:45 AM