It had all the makings of a country-music smackdown Saturday night at Target Field in Minneapolis.
You could envision the announcer: “In this corner, from Macon, Ga., Mr. Old Boots, New Dirt — Jason Aldean. In the other corner, from Luttrell, Tenn., the defending champion, Mr. No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems — Kenny Chesney.”
But, in reality, it wasn’t even a contest. Because the only real competition for Chesney, the king of stadium concerts, is Garth Brooks, the once and future country king who returned to the road last fall after a 16-year hiatus.
Let’s compare Garth in his 11-show run at Target Center in November and Chesney’s two-night stand at Target Field this weekend.
Style: Garth is all about mugging, Kenny about being in motion. Garth is all about sincerity, Kenny is all about fun. Garth is an unrepentant showman, Kenny is amped-up rock star with a cowboy hat.
Vibe: Kenny is country’s embodiment of a beach party while Garth’s cowboy hat and a hoodie say suburban cowboy.
Connection: Both connect with their fans more effectively than just about any other concert performer save for perhaps Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen. Garth does it with very personalized shout-outs to folks in the stands, Kenny achieves it with nonstop energy all over the runway extending from the stage and an eagerness to reach every fan — even those a mile away in the third deck.
Songs: Kenny sells nostalgia for earlier times and fun at all times. Garth sells profundity and romance.
Influences: George Strait-meets-Kiss describes Garth, George Strait-meets-Jimmy Buffett captures Kenny.
Goofiness: Both are prone to this. With Kenny, it’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” his early hit that now sounds silly. With Garth, it’s all those exaggerated, prolonged I-can’t-believe-you-love-me-this-much expressions that spread across his face after nearly every song.
Best drinking song: Garth toasts with “Two Pina Coladas” while Kenny celebrates with “Beer in Mexico.”
Classics: No one’s going to argue that Garth has delivered some all-timers, including “Friends in Low Places,” “The Dance” and “Unanswered Prayers,” among others. Kenny? “No Shoes No Shirt No Problems” is his signature that will probably resonate for a long time along with “Boys of Fall.”
Derring do: Kenny sits in a chair and rides a zip line from a platform over the audience to the stage. Garth half-climbs a jungle gym-like cage over his drummer.
Fitness: At 52, Garth admits to being about 50 pounds overweight but he still carries on for two hours. At 47, Kenny is as ripped as one of the stars of “Magic Mike XXL” and never lets up for two hours.
Economics: Garth charged every fan the same — $70.50 — no matter where the seat. Kenny scaled the stadium — from $46.25 to $279.50 (which meant you could stand in the sand in front of the stage). He drew a record crowd of 44,152 Saturday (he returns there Sunday) while Garth attracted a record 203,235 last fall.
Opening acts: One of Garth’s backup singers played a short set and later Trisha Yearwood, aka Mrs. Garth Brooks, did a brief set mid-show. Kenny had four opening acts, with Aldean joining him for four rollicking encore duets including covers of “Hurts So Good” and “Summer of ‘69.”
The verdict: Garth is a masterful showman with a superior repertoire and an unquenchable desire to please. Kenny is a more natural performer with unbridled energy and an unrelenting mission to make people happy. Can country have two kings?
And now for a few words about Chesney’s opening acts. Newcomers Old Dominion were bathed in sunshine; Cole Swindell was “Chillin’ It” in his personalized Twins jersey and killed it with “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,” and Brantley Gilbert sounded like his voice has been curated with cigarettes and whiskey. Aldean, this weekend’s co-headliner, was remarkably more energetic, focused and convincing than in his two previous headline gigs in the Twin Cities.