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If you’re looking at the intersection between guitar heroes and currently popular hitmakers, you’re pretty much looking at an intersection of one. Brad Paisley brought that all-too-rare combination to the intersection of Highland and the Hollywood Freeway on Saturday night, where the Hollywood Bowl was packed out for country music’s best superstar standard-bearer. There was plenty of hillbilly horseplay, hooks about fishing hooks and enough Stratocaster mastery to make Mark Knopfler (who performs at the Bowl this coming weekend) feel afraid, very afraid.
Midway through the show, Paisley soloed at length on “Then” while strolling through the crowd up to a platform halfway back in the Bowl. His ability to stay in such lockstep with his band while improvising impressively and going farther afield than the Bowl’s follow spots could track was a testament not just to his talent but the reliability of modern in-ear technology. The steepness of the Bowl’s hillside seemed to impress him as, waxing slightly winded, Paisley admitted he was “feeling the altitude” once he got up to that secondary stage.
Perhaps he also was feeling the 10 months he’s been out on the road with opening acts The Band Perry and Scotty McCreery. Saturday night marked the end of that nearly year-long North American trek, but aside from that suggestion of panting, no one seemed the worse for wear at this tour-closer, least of all the eternally good-humored headliner — who next will be seen as co-host of the CMA Awards on Nov. 1 before heading out to take his “American Saturday Nights” overseas for a spell.
His 21-song, nearly two-hour set kicked off with “The World,” which remains an important song in his catalog: When that 2006 romantic barnburner topped the country chart, it marked the moment when it became clear that country radio would really let Brad be Brad, in all his fullness — which is to say, embrace a tune that featured his Fender bending notes around virtually every line in the song, without waiting for the obligatory soloing break after the second chorus. Plenty of other subsequent hits played Saturday, all the way to the closing encore of “Alcohol,” followed in that tradition, with Paisley deliriously filling in every would-be lyrical pause in a style that owes equal amounts to Buck Owens’ guitarist Don Rich, Eddie Van Halen and, yep, Knopfler.
Paisley’s serious and silly sides both flew at full mast. On the sober side, there was “Welcome to the Future,” an age-of-miracles-and-wonder anthem that can make even a recession-plagued, news-bedraggled attendee remember that the world of 2012 is, in many ways, a pretty cool place.
His current single, “Southern Comfort Zone” (presaging an album due in April), is equally inspiring and brilliant. It arrives thinly disguised as yet another country song cataloguing everything that is superior about the land of Dixie, when what it really is is an anthem of anti-xenophobia and openness to all that the wide world has to offer — while, sure, remembering to catalog a few things that are superior about the land of Dixie.
But equally valuable in Paisley’s canon are his singular revivals of country’s great comic novelty-song tradition, which started early in the set with “Ticks,” which he altered to involve a woman having a Dodgers tattoo in the small of her back. He advised the people back in the grassy section to check each other for ticks, too, and you could forgive the Hollywood Bowl first-timer for not knowing he was playing an amphitheater with no lawn seating (assuming he didn’t mean the “tree people” who traditionally listen to, if not necessarily see, every Bowl show).
His truly soberest song, “Whiskey Lullaby,” was sung as a duet with opener Kimberly Perry replacing the recording’s Alison Krauss (after Paisley sang a snippet of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young”). This testament to untimely death was followed immediately in whiplash fashion by “Warp Speed,” arguably the funniest song of the night in spite of being an instrumental, just by virtue of how Paisley and his band turning speed-picking into an extreme sport provokes admiring laughter.
Paisley used to sing a half-live, half-recorded duet onstage every night with a giant video image of Krauss on “Whiskey Lullaby.” Now that spot in the show has been taken with his nightly live-and-Memorex duet with an absent Carrie Underwood on “Remind Me.” In this instance, it’s made better or worse, depending on your thinking, by the fact that Paisley has designed it as a magic trick, in which the digital Carrie is life-sized, and she really does appear, at least from the 20th row or so back, to be standing in the rear next to the drum riser. The complicating factor is that (almost) everybody realizes a verse or so in that she’s not really in attendance, after initially rising to their feet for the superstar “guest.” Deflating the crowd midsong is always a risky gambit, but Paisley is such a tech nerd — as he proves with other elements of his stage design and self-made LED screen animation — that you can kind of allow him the glee that went into creating this illusion.
Paisley has a way of embracing both cockiness and humility onstage without ever having those qualities seem self-contradictory. Essentially, he’s showing off without seeming to be trying too hard to show off, which is a good persona if you can get it. There was a moment in the final encore of “Alcohol” that embodied that pretty well, and it wasn’t even the moment when a woman emerged from the wings and handed him a beer bottle with which to play a bottleneck guitar solo. It came a minute later, when he was out on the ramp into the audience and quickly bent over to autograph a couple of photos with his right hand while continuing to solo on the fretboard with his left. Entertainers should all be such effortless multitaskers.
Welcome to the Future
This Is Country Music
Waitin’ on a Woman
I’m Still a Guy (incl. Good Hearted Woman)
Southern Comfort Zone
Letter to Me
Mud on the Tires
Whiskey Lullaby (inc. If I Die Young)
I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishing Song)
American Saturday Night
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