Brad Paisley is hiding behind his guitar because Brad Paisley is shy
Brad Paisley + Sara Evans + Sugarland
It’s funny: Nashville country racks up insane record sales, dominates radio rating charts, and serves as the default pop music for huge chunks of this country, but it remains obsessed with the one market it can’t ever seem to crack. New York famously has no radio station, and country acts don’t draw in this city the way they do in others. And still they keep trying, and we end up getting stuff like the embarrassingly ill-attended Big & Rich/Gretchen Wilson free concert series and the massive publicity stunt that was the CMA ceremony at Madison Square Garden. The sane thing to do would be for these acts to stick to the parts of the country where they’re huge (virtually all of it), but there’s something admirable about the way they keep plugging away here. Last night, Brad Paisley brought his arena show to the Nokia Theatre, a big-ass club, but a club just the same (the last show there was Goldfrapp). Paisley is a consummate entertainer, and he knew that he couldn’t ignore the weirdness of the situation the way openers Sara Evans and Sugarland had done, so we got some neat little quips about how the crowd’s singalonging was “not bad for no radio station” and how his different sidemen came from different NY neighborhoods. But both he and the crowd treated the club like an arena. Paisley packed his spectacular stage set, complete with enormous TV screen and lit-up bandstand, onto the club stage, and his lighting guys kept doing the thing where really bright lights shine out on the crowd during the big singalong lines. And dudes in the crowd treated Paisley’s hits like hits and did the thing where they squeeze their girlfriends from behind and sway during the ballads. It was a fascinating bit of theatre: an arena star doing arena shit in a decidedly non-arena venue but still getting arena results. He pulled it off.
Paisley’s first album dropped just six years ago, but he’s already logged enough big songs to make his show a greatest-hits revue, only breaking from the format for the occasional joke-song bit or instrumental showoff-break. Paisley can do the tear-jerking power-ballad thing just as well as anyone in country, and many of his set’s highlights came on family-disfunction laments like “He Didn’t Have to Be” and the Allison Krauss duet “Whiskey Lullaby” (Krauss showed up on the screen behind him, not in the flesh). But Paisley’s oeuvre is dominated by self-effacing goofball singalongs. Goofball tracks are huge in country, and they’re usually terrible (see: “Honky-Donk Badonkadonk”), but Paisley manages to deliver them with enough aw-shucks vulnerability and seasoned-pro punchline-timing to make the songs work. Like-ability is Paisley’s greatest strength as a performer; he played “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” without the slightest trace of smarmy irony, so I’m not going to groan when he sings a song about leaving the toilet seat down, especially if the song is actually funny, as his is. And he hit novelty-song gold with “Alcohol,” the best country single of the year, a song that transcends its jokey premise (Paisley personifying alcohol) to become an irresistible arena-rock monster-jam. And he’s got chops. His voice is a high-lonesome coo instead of a soul snarl, but it’s versatile enough to wrap itself around big notes, and he’s a bona fide guitar hero, soloing like a fucking beast over his band’s affable chug. New York was lucky to have him for a night.
Sara Evans doesn’t have Paisley’s easy charisma, but she does have a big swaggering-pro voice and an eight-years-deep catalogue of classic-rock stompers, more Bryan Adams than Tammy Wynette. But her stage patter was as confused as his songs were great, especially when she talked about being a little girl and dreaming about a “redneck from New York” sweeping her off her feet in his pickup truck. She didn’t tone down her big-house set at all, and neither did openers Sugarland, who have a handful of great singles but no idea how to translate them into an engaging live show. Sugarland only has one album out, and they still haven’t quite learned to ease into their live show. After a couple more, maybe they’ll learn what Paisley and (to a lesser extent) Evans already know: the trick to this live-show game is being slick without seeming slick, making it look like your perfectly planned live show is just what you felt like doing tonight.