Review: Brad Paisley at the Pepsi Center, 1/21/12

Update 3/21/12: See also: Brad Paisley tweets at Tim Tebow, lobbies for Titans: "Nashville's really a great place to live"

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It's about three-quarters of the way through "Waiting on a Woman" during Brad Paisley's blues-inflected lead that you arrive at a startling realization, a conclusion that you're sure many far more astute folks have no doubt probably reached long before you: If you strip away the unrelenting bravado, the exasperating swagger and the latent douchebaggery but leave the inherent pop sensibility, the estimable guitar prowess and the affecting charisma, Paisley is country's answer to John Mayer.

And it's at this precise moment that you begin to understand the enormous appeal of Paisley, a guy who's chalked up twenty (!) number-one singles in career that's not quite a dozen years old yet, with three Grammys on his mantel. He's a heartthrob with a stunning level of musicianship, who's carved out a plot of his own within the Presley paradigm, the rare performer whom dudes can legitimately admire and who simultaneously makes all the ladies swoon. And he's done so in a way that looks completely effortless. Or at least it does on this night. It probably is. For Paisley, this is, as he puts it, just another American Saturday night.

The show begins with the arena shrouded in darkness, the sole illumination coming from a laser-rendered silhouetted outline of Paisley reaching for his guitar (Fender, we presume) sketched on a sheer-fabric overhead before a lightning flash lights up the place just as Paisley takes the guitar in his hand, at which point, Paisley himself then ambles on to the stage dressed as simply and as straightforward as his stage setup. The black, slightly bedazzled Energizer shirt is the flashiest part of his wardrobe, which consists of jeans, boots, a white cowboy hat and a silver pendant hanging around his neck.

There's a YouTube clip of Paisley from 2008 in which he jokingly shows off the new minimalist setup for his then-upcoming tour, a frill-free setup with him playing through a solitary amp and his bandmates manning their individual instruments in front of some potted plants. Swap the plants for a few floor-to-ceiling LED screens and add some risers to enhance the sight lines, and the current sparser arrangement isn't really too far removed from that one.

And really, there's no need for it to be much more. Paisley dazzles with his fretwork. Over the course of his 22-song set, there's at least a half-dozen times where you study the hands of Paisley and rhythm guitarist Gary Hooker to see who's playing the leads. Spoiler alert: For the most part, it's Paisley, and he's ripping through the notes with the visceral ease of breathing.

And this confidence as a player extends to rest of his stage presence, specifically his interplay with the audience. He has a certain aw-shucks, down-home affability that's genuinely endearing. On "This Is Country Music" and "That Old Alabama," when he pays homage to the trailblazers who came before him, it doesn't feel patronizing. Likewise, he doesn't seem coy when he expresses his gratitude for those who came out to see him tonight, especially in these tough economic times, he says, pointing out that his only aim here is to give everyone their money's worth. To that end, he's pretty sure that happened before he even took the stage, thanks to his openers, Scotty McCreery and the Band Perry.

He's being generous -- those acts are still a ways from even coming close to matching his showmanship -- but just the same, you believe the guy. And this believability allows him to be embraced in a way that other performers might not be. Moments in the show that might actually be scripted -- like when he signs a guitar and hands it to a little girl in the audience or then later grabs someone else's cell phone and snaps a few pictures -- sure don't feel that way.

And that's impressive, because like most arena shows, this one seems to be fairly by-the-numbers. A quick peek at the set list from Paisley's show at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul the previous week reveals that he's playing the exact songs in the exact same order, with even the guests (McCreery on "Celebrity," the Band Perry on "Whiskey Lullaby" and the "virtual" Carrie Underwood during "Remind Me") showing up in all the designated spots.

That's not to say that there aren't moments of unexpected spontaneity. At least the young McCreery seems genuinely surprised when he and his tour mates take their spots on the ramps on either side of the stage and commence to Tebowing, and unbeknownst to him -- and the rest of the crowd, evidently -- out comes Tim Tebow himself to slap hands and sing a few lines of "I'm Still a Guy" to thunderous applause.

Suddenly, in the midst of all the Tebowing, Paisley's preamble to the ladies about their efforts to feminize guys kills and how it kills their spirit and that whole bit about feeling like he's the last real guy and not having highlights in his hair or ever getting a massage, makes more sense.

Again, for a show that's undoubtedly been performed countless times across the country, Paisley does an excellent job of making it feel less so. And that's even besides the calculated moments, such as when he makes his way to a perch in the back of the arena to perform "Letter to Me" under a lone spot for the cheap seats, or when he tosses in the obligatory Colorado references in his songs, or casually mentions that his drummer Ben Sesar, happens to hail from Boulder. Regardless of his origin, Sesar's a masterful musician worthy of the applause, as is the rest of the band, which has been with Paisley for a dozen years and plays with flawless precision.

Throughout the show, Paisley delivers moments of self-deprecating levity -- the oversized caricature of himself from the "Celebrity" video -- to let you know that he doesn't take himself too seriously, as well as somber moments of vulnerability on songs like "Waiting on a Woman," "She's Everything" and "Whiskey Lullaby," which showcase a bit of depth on his part as a songwriter. Speaking of the songs, some have aged better than others. The line about MySpace in "Online," which was no doubt timely when it was released, is now glaringly obsolete.

All in all, while you can engage in endless debate over the merits of modern country, fact is, Paisley indeed gives folks their money's worth. Even when he's flubs notes, as he does at the beginning of "I'm Gonna Miss Her," he's a cut above the rest. He's probably the best thing modern country has going right now -- even if that's not necessarily reflected in the collage plastered on the outside of the KYGO trailer as folks exit the arena. Above a headline touting "Today's Country," Paisley's face is conspicuously missing from a colorful wrap-around that otherwise includes Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.


Personal Bias: None really. I dig a few of his tunes, but I can take him or leave him, honestly. More to the point, while I'm far more inclined to gravitate to the Buck Owens brand of country, I'm not a purist who's willing to dismiss modern country out of hand simply because of the pop influence.

Random Detail: There was a girl seated a row over from us who was holding up an iPad (!) during the show, presumably capturing the gig on video.

By the Way: There were signs "FANSOS" signs posted at the Pepsi Center sort of like those from the highway patrol encouraging you to report aggressive drivers, only these encouraged fans to report bad behavior on the part of other fans.


Brad Paisley Pepsi Center - 1/21/12 Denver, CO

Camouflage The World Welcome To The Future Ticks This Is Country Music Waiting On A Woman Celebrity (W/ Scotty McCreery) She's Everything Online Good Hearted Woman/I'm Still A Guy Then Letter To Me Mud On The Tires Working On a Tan Whiskey Lullaby (W/ The Band Perry) Back To The Future I'm Gonna Miss Her Remind Me (W/ Virtual Carrie Underwood) Old Alabama Water


American Saturday Night Alcohol

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