It was written here at the start of this year’s always A-list schedule of country concerts at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center that Tim McGraw is “keeper of the modern country throne,” but Brad Paisley made a convincing case for the crown Friday night before a reported crowd of 15,000 fans.
While McGraw’s calling card is his sturdy voice and Adonis looks, in terms of ability to entertain, he pales in comparison to Paisley, the somewhat lesser singer but world-class guitar slinger who proved far more fun and flashy with his “Beat This Summer Tour,” which included support from opening acts Chris Young, Lee Brice and the Henningsens, a bill so full that the show began earlier than announced.
Multigenerational Illinois family farmers-turned-bandmates, the Henningsens happily had a crowd in the thousands despite starting 10 minutes before the ticketed showtime, impressing with their instinctive harmonies in a 20-minute set backed by a pop-production band and punctuated by their breakout hit “American Beautiful.”
The South Carolinian Brice displayed a decent voice but more interest in shouting than singing in his half-hour set backed by a five-piece band. He opened with two songs in which the only substance is that which is being consumed in “Parking Lot Party” and “Beer,” while offering a heavy hit in the ballad “I Drive Your Truck.” That tune was inspired by co-songwriter Connie Harrington, who heard a story on public radio about a father of a fallen soldier driving his son’s truck to feel close to him.
Former Nashville Star winner and Music City native Chris Young followed with a 50-minute set that showed his country-clean voice capable of commanding both old-school songs, such as hits “Gettin’ You Home” and “Voices,” with the new-school party schlock that’s more tailgate than two-step in “A.M.” and “Aw Naw.” He goaded the crowd to shout for his namedropping of Conway Twitty in “I Can Take It from There” before taking it in a different direction in closing with a corny call to “Save Water, Drink Beer.”
Speaking of corny, Paisley may have cornered that country market as a co-songwriter of nearly all of his recordings. He gets away with it first by being irreverent, at times allowing himself to be the punchline while grinning through clever spins in his lyrics and demanding to be taken seriously by virtue of the kind of Fender telecaster picking that could go toe-to-toe with the titans of the trade. The 40-year-old West Virginia native presents himself as a rural son who’s become one with city life while sticking true to his roots, able to adapt to and poke fun at both.
Backed by his longtime band of Drama Kings (Gary Hooker, rhythm guitar; Randle Currie, steel guitar; Kendal Marcy, keyboards, banjo, mandolin; Justin Williamson, fiddle, mandolin; Kenny Lewis, bass; and Ben Sesar, drums), Paisley opened by working the entirety of a three-sided catwalk as an onstage screen displayed a laser-light show of world-renowned skylines and backing screen offered a virtual choir to the tune of “Southern Comfort Zone.” The country clichés continued with “Mud on the Tires,” Paisley picking and bending blazing notes with incredible command. He paused during the high-energy hustle of “The Mona Lisa” to ask the men in the crowd to make some noise if they were with the most beautiful woman in the world, and after their obvious howls, he said, “You can’t all be right, y’know – but any man who didn’t just cheer is an idiot.”
Further coming off as an everyday guy, Paisley praised the setting of outdoor summer concerts for his style of country music before the melting-pot projecting sing-along of “American Saturday Night.” Then he brought out Brice and Young for the redneck smirk of “Outstanding in Our Field” – which may be corny but is definitely a clever pun for knowing how to party in the middle of nowhere.
“Celebrity” hilariously mocked the subject of its title and all celebrity earns, with a video that included a mascot-like giant-headed Paisley character and YouTube stars from Psy to the sounds of shouting goats. Paisley gave the band a break except for the accompaniment of Marcy on piano as he picked the perfect wedding first dance song in “Then,” before bringing the band back for the guitar-driven power ballad “Everything.”
The fiery instrumental “Time Warp” whipped into a cover of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” which Paisley owned on guitar a la Eddie – though his homey voice lacks the reckless abandon of Diamond Dave.
A late-set switch to a small stage at the soundboard in the center of the crowd was a big hit, with the solo “Waitin’ on a Woman” giving way to a bluegrass picker with three bandmates in another nod to modern times “Online.”
Closing with “Water” and an encore of “Ticks” and “Alcohol,” Paisley placed his signature cowboy hat on a young girl in the front row – his last of countless encounters with the crowd – and thanked the crowd yet again before giving one last solo and stepping off the stage in triumph, a legend in his prime.