For the tens of thousands of people who descended on M&T; Bank Stadium for Kenny Chesney's Poets and Pirates Tour, the highlight of the full day came when Chesney emerged from beneath the stage about 9 p.m., unleashing an uninhibited roar of cheers.
In a sleeveless Bruce Springsteen Live 1975-85 T-shirt, Chesney channeled the Boss' renowned high energy for a roughly 100-minute set that ran through all his major hits and wrapped up with "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." Slowing down only for the occasional ballad, Chesney held the crowd convincingly in his sway, some of whom had anticipated the moment for up to 12 hours.
The nearly all-day event kicked off about 9 a.m. for the earliest pre-show tailgaters and extended well into the evening as country music fans came from as far away as Chicago to kick back, down a few cold beers and take in a steady succession of country stars leading up to the main performance from Chesney, the Country Music Awards' reigning Entertainer of the Year.
But whether they stuck to tailgating in the parking lot all day or danced and sang along with Chesney's set late in the evening, everyone seemed to get what they came for: music, relaxation and, more often than not, buzzed bonhomie.
"It's the camaraderie. Everybody on the field, everybody in the stadium, they all come together as a family," said Diana McNemar, 38, a Chesney fan from Pasadena who has been to several of his shows over the past few years. "We hung out outside. ... You get to love the people outside, and once you've made it into the stadium it's like going home."
The concert opened with Gary Allan and followed with a steady stream of big-name country acts including Leann Rimes, Big & Rich and Brooks & Dunn kept the crowd two-stepping in the aisles, raising their drinks and singing along to the choruses throughout the afternoon. .
With an affable stage presence, Rimes confidently strode the stage in heels, leaning down at several points to autograph hats and posters for fans. She scored cheers by donning a Ravens jersey with "Rimes" emblazoned across the back for her last three tunes, including her '90s hit "How Do I Live Without You" and a cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me."
Big & Rich also infused their act with healthy doses of rock - including AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" - and even something of the punk ethos, smashing two acoustic guitars at the end of their set. Amid hits "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" and "I Play Chicken with the Train," John Rich thanked the crowd for "supporting what we do, which is country music without prejudice."
As dusk settled over the stadium, journeymen Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn took the stage for a set that concluded with an encore performance of "Boot Scootin' Boogie." While less physically animated than the previous performers, the two offered a fuller sound and an even larger spectacle. Midway through the anthem "Only in America," a handful of Marines and soldiers in dress uniform marched onstage. Shortly thereafter, a blast of red, white and blue streamers had the field-level crowd untangling itself for several minutes.
But the night belonged to Chesney, who trolled the stage with cameras trailing him throughout the set. Backed up by no fewer than 11 musicians - including a four-man horn section - the crowd of 42,316 pulsed as Chesney launched into the hits "Living in Fast Forward" and "How Forever Feels."