Brad Paisley is modern country music’s greatest guitarist. There is no denying this fact. No other mainstream artist who sings, writes and performs his own songs can play the six strings better than Paisley can. Take a listen to the entire “Play” album if you don’t believe me. Paisley seemed destined for country stardom from youth; he was opening for country acts such as The Judds, Ricky Skaggs and George Jones as a middle schooler.
That talent has been showcased on 11 albums, with another on the way. His technical prowess on the axe is rivaled only by his ability to make fun of himself and craft elaborate set pieces, sometimes at the same time. The music videos for “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” “Celebrity” and “Online” were breaths of fresh air on CMT in the early aughts, when CMT still aired music videos on a regular basis. His songs, especially when he was first starting out, were modern, but recalled early bluegrass and the heroes of old country showbiz like Little Jimmy Dickens and Buck Owens.
All of that is to say, Brad Paisley is extremely talented. Which is why it’s sad that his performance Friday night at the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park felt lacking.
When you’re that talented, it goes without saying that you practice. You practice a lot. And when you take your show out on tour, you have to plan it out down to a T. That means when you can’t get famous duet partners Demi Lovato, Randy Owens and Carrie Underwood to join you live, you have them pre-record video segments that play along with you as you sing (the Underwood one was made to look like a completely improvised FaceTime call).
It also means, when you play your college football-themed “Country Nation,” you definitely tailor the accompanying video to the city you’re playing in. Friday night’s show featured the Longhorns; Saturday’s show in Dallas may feature a shoutout to the SMU Mustangs or TCU’s Horned Frogs. His September show at West Virginia University will most definitely feature a video dedicated to the Mountaineers.
And it also means that the set pieces are fantastic and pulled off to perfection— the stage during “Online” lit in futuristic blue hues out from “Tron“; the house lights bathing the crowd in warm purple during the love ballad “She’s Everything.”
All of the pageantry, technical wizardry and ace guitar playing were technically profound, but felt empty. It felt at times like Paisley was reciting instead of performing. The guitar solos tacked onto some of the songs felt planned rather than organic. Even the stage banter between tourmates Maddie & Tae and Tyler Farr seemed scripted in some parts. (Perhaps Paisley’s eight-years-and-counting stint as the host of the CMAs has influenced his concerts more than he would think.)
But that’s not to say the collaborations weren’t warmly felt. Maddie & Tae’s interpretation of Alison Krauss’ verse on “Whiskey Lullaby” was one of the crowd highlights of the night.
The only real, seemingly authentic moment of the show, even though it’s been documented at other stops on the tour, was when Paisley preformed a new humorous song about the dangers of taking selfies you regret.
At the end of the night, all the hits were sung. All the right notes were hit. The production looked fantastic. But even when Paisley led the crowd in a closing sing-along, it was clear that he was still firmly in his “Southern Comfort Zone.”
“American Saturday Night”
“Without a Fight” (with a prerecorded Demi Lovato sing-along)
“This Is Country Music”/”Mama Tried” (with Kevin Fowler)
“I’m Still a Guy” (with Tyler Farr)
“Whiskey Lullaby” (with Maddie & Tae)
“Old Alabama” (with a prerecorded Alabama sing-along)
“Beat This Summer”
“I’m Gonna Miss Her”
“You Oughta Be Ashamed Of Your Selfie”
“Remind Me” (with a prerecorded Carrie Underwood sing-along)
“Southern Comfort Zone”
“Mud on the Tires”
“On the Road Again” (with Kevin Fowler, Tyler Farr and Maddie & Tae)