Wildwood prepares for Kenny Chesney's beach concert

Posted: June 21, 2012

WILDWOOD - For something that is supposed to be "unstaged" - as if country music's Kenny Chesney just stumbled upon a beach, framed by a boardwalk Ferris wheel and roller-coaster, on which to host a free concert for 20,000 people - there's an awful lot of stagecraft going on in this seaside resort.

For days, crews have been building a four-story stage and gated general-admission area on the wide Schellenger Avenue beach for Chesney's Wednesday night concert, the latest installment of the "American Express Unstaged" music series.

With his own team, the director Jonathan Demme - known for The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, as well as films showcasing Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Talking Heads - has been scouting angles for the show. Demme will direct a 75-minute livestream of the performance by the No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem singer.

Chesney fans not lucky enough to have copped a free ticket can watch the concert at 8:30 and for 12 hours afterward on YouTube ( www.youtube.com/user/kennychesneyvevo/unstaged).

At this Jersey Shore playground, where the concert is expected to be the largest ever held on the beach, Chesney fever has set in.

Motels and hotels, which were booked solid as soon as the concert was announced on June 7, are festooned with banners welcoming Chesney fans. Occupancy rates this time of the year normally hover around 30 percent, officials said.

Bars and restaurants are offering pre- and postconcert parties and Chesney-themed drink specials - maybe a "Hemingway's Whiskey" or a "You and Tequila" will be in order. And some plan to offer the concert to patrons via widescreens.

Chesney T-shirts celebrating the Welcome to the Fishbowl CD released Tuesday are already for sale in Boardwalk shops.

And in an amusing twist, considering that actual concertgoers paid nothing for their passes, the Splash Zone Waterpark is selling about four dozen $75 tickets to a VIP area on a concrete-and-steel deck that offers a "vantage point" of the stage about 2,000 feet away.

"The town is going crazy in a good way, like it's a Saturday night or the Fourth of July," said Will Knapp, Splash Zone's marketing director.

The water park, which closes at 6 p.m., will reopen at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Knapp said. For $50 general admission, those who may have not gotten tickets to the show can get close enough to possibly hear it.

"We got here Saturday and it's all Chesney all the time for us. We can't wait," said Michael Bosch, 32, a "cowboy" from Salem, N.J., who rented a Wildwood house with three friends for the week after they obtained concert tickets.

Local officials expect the event to be a hot time - and they're not just talking about the possible scorcher the weatherman says may mark the official start of summer this week.

Officials in Wildwood and neighboring North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest have worked overtime to create plans for traffic, parking, and medical-and-emergency needs, said John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwood Tourism Improvement and Development Authority.

"There are a lot of pieces of the pie that come into play," Siciliano said. "You need the plans in place to deal with issues before the crowds arrive."

American Express and local officials have warned fans without tickets to stay away. Traffic and parking will be challenging enough.

But no one is kidding himself: Those hoping to catch a few stray notes from the beach or the boardwalk could number in the thousands.

Reality check: Chesney will be singing more than 2,000 feet from the boardwalk. And on the ocean side, the city has cordoned off the beach for about a block.

Last year, Chesney headlined the largest country music concert ever held in New Jersey when he entertained about 55,000 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. On Saturday, his sold-out performance at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia attracted 53,000 people.

Hosting what may be the biggest-ever event to hit the Cape May County resort is daunting, Siciliano admits.

The nearby Wildwoods Convention Center holds about 10,000 people for music attractions. Officials here see the concert on the sand - where fans will be prohibited from bringing chairs or blankets - as a trial run for other big shows.

"We're going to be taking very good notes and learning from [the experience]. This is an awesome opportunity for us not only to show off our great beaches, but also to show that the Wildwoods are capable of putting on a concert like this," Siciliano said. "This is the perfect venue for a beach concert."

Chesney, a veteran beach guy, owns a 60-foot Sea Ray yacht and an oceanfront house in the Virgin Islands. His easygoing, barefoot brand of entertainment seems perfect for Wildwood.

It's not likely he'll hang around, though. In addition to performing in Wildwood, Chesney this week is taping an NBC Fourth of July special, promoting his CD with appearances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Today, and performing with Tim McGraw at concerts in Nashville on Saturday and Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday.


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.

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