It was about the midway point of his Friday night concert at the Saddledome and Brad Paisley was engaging in that now-obligatory tradition of mainstream country shows: the slow trudge through the audience to get to a mini-stage for a tender acoustic ballad or two.
The song he was playing for the journey was Crushin’ It, the stomping opener of his 2014 album Moonshine in the Trunk. As he trudged, the jumbtron played a loop of America’s Funniest Videos-type footage of stunts gone awry. Right after making it to the platform, Paisley offered a final, exhilarating squall on his telecaster.
It seemed to offer a nice summation of the concert as a whole on Friday, an evening that mixed the mundane with frequent flashes of brilliance.
Much of the latter came from Paisley’s astonishing fretwork, which was in fine form at the ‘Dome. For the uninitiated, the sheer power of the 45-year-old’s six-string shredding may come as a surprise. Like British guitar whiz Richard Thompson, Paisley is a dazzling player who mixes measured skill and tone with supercharged storms of noise. His stinging guitar lines rip deep into his songs and carry them along. Unlike Thompson, however, the songs themselves rarely measure up to the inventiveness of the guitar playing that carries them.
But, hey, you can’t have everything. And even if you don’t quite buy into Paisley’s often tongue-in-cheek, good-ole-boy material about crushin’, drinkin’ and fishin’, there was plenty to marvel at when it came to his playing. It was there right out the gate, with the dizzying twang of Mud on the Tires and metallic sheen of Perfect Storm. It was there when he stood toe-to-toe for all-too-brief fleet-fingered duels with fiddle player Justin Williamson and for the soaring, classic-rock intro that lifted the by-the-numbers ballad Then into something much more substantial.
Still, as good as his playing is, it wasn’t the only highlight. One of the night’s best moments came courtesy of Lindsey Ell, who acted as an impressive stand-in for Alison Krauss on the hard-eyed ballad, Whisky Lullaby. The Calgary expat is no slouch herself on the six-string and held her own trading licks with Paisley. Carrie Underwood, meanwhile, appeared to be piped in via an iPhone to duet with Paisley on the powerful Remind Me. There was a nice moment where the voices of a virtual choir swelled behind Paisley on the touching Southern Comfort Zone. While much of the visuals on the jumbotron seemed curiously on-the-nose (i.e. Tires for Mud on the Tires, the globe for The World, water for Water, a storm for Perfect Storm and purple rain for a snippet of Prince’s Purple Rain), it was put to good use for the singer’s South Park-inspired run through the wry humour-laced Celebrity.
In fact, while Paisley’s guitar-playing may be his most obvious secret weapon, a secondary strength is that dry sense of humour. It was on display during his between-song banter and helped keep I’m a Guy, done Friday as a duet with “surprise” opener Brett Kissel, from sinking too far into icky man-power machismo.
On Friday night, Kissel was preceded by Peterborough, Ont’s Tebey, who specializes in dramatic mid-tempo pop numbers. According to the broad parameters of mainstream radio, he is a country artist. But much of his twang — the odd steel-guitar or banjo flourish — seem like cosmetic afterthoughts. Still, he is a charismatic performer who made the best of his brief opening slot. As did Kissel, who bounded on stage with a near-manic energy that he maintained throughout his set. The Albertan’s frenzied take on John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy, played with near punk-rock energy, was a sturdy highlight of the evening.
As a headliner, Paisley couldn’t always match Kissel’s youthful energy. But he more than made up for the occasional slip into workman-like banality with constant reminders of his stunning instrumental prowess and endearing humour. Judging by the thunderous approval of the crowd, that was more than sufficient for Stampede 2018’s final Friday.
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