Chesney's fans take in the ultimate beer party

The show began with a shot of Jimmy Buffett blowing the crowd a kiss on an intro video, and once Kenny Chesney took the stage, he blew one right back at him, treating Margaritaville like hallowed ground, like Graceland smothered in puka shells and empty shot glasses.

These days, Chesney is far more Key West than Nashville, a Key lime cowboy whose tye-dyed honky tonk is the country music equivalent of a keg stand, a rum-soaked study in suspended adolescence.

"Should I try to grow up?" Chesney asked during the show opening "Beer in Mexico," and the capacity crowd at the Mandalay Bay Events Center paid good money for Chesney to answer in the negative.

And of course, he did.

"So I'll just sit here and have another beer in Mexico," he continued to sing. "Do my best to waste another day."

This is the promise implied in any Kenny Chesney show -- "no worries, just good vibrations" -- and this is why he packs arenas with as much consistency as any touring act these days.

It also renders Chesney immune to most criticism.

What are you going to say about the guy? That his repertoire is disposable, that his tan is deeper than his tunes?

Yeah, well, that's exactly why so many people line up to see the guy.

Chesney's appeal is the boozy escapism he trades in, his songs, at least of late, serving as the musical equivalent of one of those sun-baked Corona beer commercials, where everyone has their toes in the sand and the biggest concern is falling coconuts.

"Big straw hat, banana drink," Chesney sings on "Key Lime Pie." "I can't remember what I think."

Don't worry about it, dude, it's probably for the best.

When he's not romanticizing this tropical paradise or that, Chesney focuses on something just as reassuring: fetishizing the past, those teen years where anything is possible and the -- dare we even say the word? -- sober realities of adulthood are viewed from a distance, from the bottom of a beer glass.

This wistfulness was a constant motif in Chesney's set Thursday, which was loaded with backward-looking tunes like "Keg in the Closet," "Young," "I Go Back" and others, where Chesney reminiscences about "growing up too fast" and "living life with no sense of time," a comforting notion to the blue-collar nine-to-fivers who make up a substantial portion of his fan base.

The rest of Chesney's audience is made up mostly of cocktail-powered 20-somethings -- particularly young women -- who swoon at his chiseled physique and hip-swishing, Caribbean-flavored rock 'n' roll.

In reality, other than the cowboy hat and the occasional fiddle-fired tune, Chesney's less a country singer than a self-professed "hillbilly rock star."

He entered the arena with AC/DC blaring, not Randy Travis.

Chesney seems to take more cues from John Mellencamp and the Steve Miller Band than George Strait or Conway Twitty, and his show reflects as much: It's loud and brash, with Chesney bounding across the stage in painted-on jeans that look as if they required deep breathing lessons to squeeze into.

On stage, Chesney performs with three guitarists, in addition to strapping on a six-string himself from time to time, resulting in muscular, raucous roadhouse rock.

Of course, Chesney still makes concessions to the Nashville faithful, and so he occasionally tips his hat to that crowd, displaying Nascar footage on the video screen behind him during "Living in Fast Forward."

But ultimately, Chesney's not interested in the pathos, the piety and the jingoism that define much of modern country.

"I've had a good time, it's true," he sang at one point Thursday, and the crowd seemed to be happy that Chesney was sharing it with them.

You know, before all those hangovers started setting in.