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Chesney tour: It takes a dedicated village

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By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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The final installment in a series that looks around, behind, and off the stage.

PHILADELPHIA - In the production office for country singer Kenny Chesney’s “Goin’ Coastal’’ tour, there is only one figure that is not in motion.

“Lou,’’ a mannequin Chesney’s crew built as a stand-in for the promoter, silently surveys the very busy hive on this Friday afternoon.

Run by the sure hands of production office manager and queen bee Jill Trunnell - “I’m air traffic control for Kenny,’’ she says with a laugh - this nerve center is just one of several areas at Lincoln Financial Field that is swarming with activity. They’re preparing to mount what is one of the summer’s biggest touring productions, complete with enormous video screens, a lengthy runway that extends deep into the audience, and an opening number that features Chesney sailing above the crowd.

It’s about 26 hours until showtime at the stadium, and catering is abuzz with stagehands and production administrators. The sound tent in the middle of the field is crawling with audio engineers adjusting equipment. And the massive stage itself is well-populated by stagehands, instrument techs, video screen riggers, and other crew members piecing together the thousands of moving parts that make up a night of country music revelry.

“By the time you get down to the pastry chef, there’s 146 of us that are out here doing this,’’ says Ed Wannebo, 55, Chesney’s production manager of 10 years. He ticks off a list that includes pilots; truck and bus drivers, sound, light, and video crews; security; the administrative staff; the band; and the merchandise managers. “It’s a pretty big machine to move around.’’

The Kenny Chesney machine comes to Foxborough this weekend for two shows at Gillette Stadium, Saturday and Sunday. And if everyone’s done their job right, none of the 110,000 fans who arrive to sing along to “Beer in Mexico,’’ “When the Sun Goes Down,’’ or any of Chesney’s odes to laid-back living will even notice that stage crew.

And that’s just the way Wannebo likes it: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’’ he says with a chuckle. But without Wannebo - the Wizard of Ches - and the rest of the army of men, and women, behind the curtain, there would be no show.

Chesney is keenly aware of this and very grateful. He stops by to chat after a sound check during which he snapped photos of his band and crew for his annual tour yearbook in between testing his microphone and guitars.

“If somebody lays down and doesn’t do their job with this?’’ Chesney says, gesturing at the massive stage. “It does not work. They’re the very best at what they do.’’

The singer also shows his gratitude by putting his money where his margaritas go: He takes the entire crew and their spouses and significant others on a weeklong trip to St. John in the Caribbean at the end of every tour. (He also routinely has them take a bow during the encore.)

“Kenny’s special,’’ says Trunnell, a friendly Kentuckian who has worked for Chesney for seven years and previously logged miles with Elton John and Britney Spears, among others. “He’s not the artist that goes to the hotel or just flies in for the show. He has breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us. He comes in and out of the production office. He sees the whole process of the stage being built. He knows all the crew members by name. There’s not other artists that do things the way Kenny does it.’’

While finding people to praise the person who signs their checks is probably not a difficult task, in the Chesney camp there is an almost evangelical appreciation of not just the boss but of one another.

“I have universal respect for everyone who’s involved in this,’’ says Wannebo. “From the guy that empties the trash can to the guy running a $3 million piece of equipment, all of it has to work.’’

(Also, if the apocalypse comes, these are the people you want to be hanging out with. To wit: “We bring everything. We bring our own power. We carry our own twin-pack redundant generator. We carry 80 dozen towels. We carry a washer-dryer, bar, you name it,’’ says Wannebo. “All we need is a time and a place and we do it.’’)

Different from an amphitheater like the Comcast Center, where there is a fixed stage, a stadium show requires that everything be built from the ground up. The construction starts nearly a week before the show, says Wannebo.

“The stage shows up in 13 trucks,’’ says the veteran who has worked with everyone from Van Halen to Hall and Oates. “The steel takes 30 hours to build.’’ The staging team works until Thursday. Friday morning the actual production equipment arrives in 16 trucks, and it takes nine hours to build, right up until sound check.

(The stage itself is also an unsung part of the concertgoing experience, one that’s often taken for granted until something goes wrong. When inclement weather was blamed for toppling the stage at the Indiana State Fair last weekend, stage safety was suddenly in the headlines.)

Sound, of course, is the key component to a concert and often the most vexing at stadium shows. Audio systems engineer John Mills, who works for Morris Light and Sound, does his level best to make the huge spaces built for football work for music, taking into account wind, temperature, and humidity. “I try to make my judgments on the setup of the system based on what’s going to happen at showtime,’’ he says.

Today Mills is not thrilled about some glassed-in spaces in the stadium “because when sound hits a hard reflective surface, it then goes somewhere else and that’s usually bad because that creates the echo that you hear.’’ But by showtime the next night, Mills gives the thumbs up: “We’re ready for Kenny to rock.’’

During the show, while Chesney is regaling a crowd of more than 50,000 with songs about guitars and tiki bars, the production office is still hopping even as workers are taking down the colored lights, Chesney posters, and other temporary decorations. The vibe is considerably more laid-back, however, as Wannebo starts handing out Coronas and margaritas to visitors. It is a Chesney tour, after all.

The moment the singer leaves the stage, the crew of more than 200 - including local Philadelphia union hands hired for the night - arrives en masse to start breaking it down. “It’s a herd,’’ agrees Wannebo, who says that by the end of the weekend “by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, you’ll never know we were on the field.’’

Befitting the time constraint, everyone moves briskly, but there is a certain athletic grace to the load-out choreography chaos as stage manager Tom Nisun barks orders and workers split off to dismantle screens, roll cable, and climb trusses.

One crew member cheerfully lugging a speaker past a reporter comments: “This is the big show, poetry in motion.’’

At nearly midnight Wannebo is awfully chipper for a man who has been on the job since 9 a.m. “The band’s had their fun,’’ he says with a twinkle in his eye as he surveys the scene from atop his Segway. “It’s our time to go kick it.’’

The man in the spotlight is still a bit incredulous that he finds himself at the center of all this activity.

Chesney recalls being in college and doing laundry with his road manager, David Farmer, who’s one of several folks he’s worked with from the beginning. They were discussing the future.

At the time, Chesney was playing bars for tips. Farmer asked what Chesney’s dream was.

“I said, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great just to have one record out there and just take one trip around like our heroes did?’ I remember that vividly. We had just gotten back from a concert, and we felt that energy and I wanted to know what that was like,’’ Chesney says, recalling excursions to see favorite bands like Van Halen and Aerosmith. “And now I do. I think this is our 16th or 17th trip. We’ve been very blessed.’’

With a laugh, he adds: “Trust me, in Johnson City, Tenn., at East Tennessee State University doing our laundry, we never dreamed this.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

KENNY CHESNEY

With the Zac Brown Band and Billy Currington

At: Gillette Stadium, Sunday at 5 p.m. Tickets: $44.50-$99.50. Saturday’s show is sold out. 800-745-3000. www.ticketmaster.com