Delivering the second serving of the weekend’s country music festivities (following Saturday’s WGNA CountryFest at the Altamont Fairgrounds), Brad Paisley brought his Paisley Party to Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday. But it only felt like country music once his openers finished and he took over, and not just because only he and his guitarist wore cowboy hats.
Paisley displayed an engaging, warm voice and humble manner; a strong band armed with fiddle, steel and banjo; solid songs; and really, really impressive guitar skills.
“Mud on the Tires” burst from the starting line fast, with Paisley apparently singing atop the tall stage-set resembling a vast rack of amps, though this was a video trick he later repeated to simulate Alison Krauss in a duet of “Whiskey Lullabye.” (Opener Jewel would later duet effectively with Paisley in “That’s The Way Love Goes.”) In actuality, at the start, he burst from a box roadies had carried to the end of long runway thrust deep into the audience, instantly erasing any distance from the fans.
“Better Than This” portrayed his aspirations and featured fiddle, while “Celebrity” and “Letter to Me” mocked fame and celebrated it, also modestly putting it into perspective. And that perspective may be Paisley’s greatest strength as artist and performer. If “Letter” and “Whiskey Lullabye” mused seriously on life’s ups and downs, “Mr. Policeman” and “I’m Gonna Miss Her” hit the funnybone. Paisley’s ability to reflect so effectively on big questions and earn such big laughs mark him as an artist of rare gifts and maturity.
Marketing over music
Jewel’s recent re-branding of herself as a country singer marked an awkward triumph of marketing over music. Despite her country-chart success, sacrificing her reclusive mystique for a more accessible persona onstage worked far better as theater than music. Her new country-branded songs “A Stronger Woman” and “I Do” used her huge voice to country-ish emotional effect, and the vintage “You Were Meant for Me” connected well in sad solo folkie mode.
However, a pandering rap praising those serving in the military overseas rang hollow. Worse, “Who Will Save Your Soul” — rather than being country-fied as might be expected — was pumped up by bass throb, like dub folk on steroids as she sang like Janis Joplin channeling Bob Marley. Amazingly, even worse was a strident set-closing yodel display. Really embarrassing.
Charismatic newcomers Julianne Hough and Chuck Wicks compressed four hits each into 20-minute openers; but rather than relying entirely on uptempo songs, they each slowed the pace at times. Maybe most important, both demonstrated the key country music skill of singing on pitch while shaking many fans’ hands.
Hough’s set was longer than her shorts, with only “Jimmy Ray McGee” slowing from the mid-tempo rock of her hits “That Song in My Head” and “My Hallelujah Song.” If Reba is 10 in all departments, Hough ranked 4 for voice, 5 for songs, 12 for moves and energy.
With George Strait as 10, Wicks was 8 for voice, 5 for songs and about 15 for projection: He even roamed the runway after his set, signing autographs. He surprised by following his ballad hit “Stealin’ Cinderella” with another slow one, “What If You Stay” before revving to finish hot with “She’s Gonna Hurt Somebody.”
Despite driving rain that no doubt reduced the walk-up, total attendance was about 9,000, with the amphitheatre nearly full at $49.75 and $39.75 a ticket while a surprising number of lawn fans ($27.50 a ticket) braved the weather.