The question really wasn’t whether Brad Paisley would be good.
A jammed crowd inside the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on Thursday – along with a string of gold records and nearly three dozen Top 10 singles – attested that he would be.
Some conclusions are self-evident: At the end of the movie, the Titanic will sink. Drop a pen, it will fall.
Put Paisley in front of a crowd, he will rock.
To me, the question was deeper: What is it about Paisley that makes people swoon? Sure, he’s handsome, he’s clever, and he has a sweet voice. But that’s true of a lot of singers.
So what about the Paisley brand compels a crowd to get juiced up and – as the skies opened – drenched in the stuff of his songs? (For the uninitiated, that’s “Alcohol” and “Water.”)
Or put another way: Opener Charlie Worsham said to the crowd, “This is my first time in New York, but it won’t be my last. Someday I’m going to come back and headline this place. I want you all with me.”
With that lofty goal in mind, how can the talented and charismatic 28-year-old Worsham bottle up some of the 41-year-old Paisley’s formula?
Paisley’s nearly two-hour set delivered the answer: Just as his lyrics make simple concepts memorable (Paisley pickup line: “I’d like to check you for ticks”), his show makes simple connections on a grand scale.
During “American Saturday Night,” the video screen that served as Paisley’s floor-to-ceiling backdrop depicted images of Captain America and other Marvel characters.
The Americana pop culture references flowed even more heavily during “Celebrity,” replete with satirical tabloid headlines, a naked Miley Cyrus “Wrecking Ball” parody on the screen and a big-headed mascot body double on stage that made Paisley look a little like Woody from “Toy Story.”
Consider the lyrics from the song: “Someday I’m going to be famous. Do I have talent? Well, no. These days you don’t really need it, thanks to reality shows.”
Important to note: Paisley is now a panelist on one of those reality shows, ABC’s “Rising Star.” But that’s hardly contradictory. Self-deprecation is a key ingredient of country music, and Paisley plays it on a scale that’s both grand and poignant. He’s a pop-culture commentator with a cowboy hat and guitar.
In concert, he also projects himself as the guy next door who will join you for a beer on the porch.
Or a hug.
In the pit area directly in front of the stage, Paisley saw a young woman holding a handwritten sign and brought her on the stage. “This is Melissa,” he said, and then read her sign: “I leave for basic training in two weeks. Can I have a hug?”
He delivered. Then he looked at the crowd and cracked a smile.
“You thought you were real men,” he joked. “She’s more man than any of you.”
Then he paused and added, “Unless you’ve been in the service. In which case, thank you and God bless.”
Yes, it’s true: Humor, poignancy and sex appeal can live together.
Paisley is masterful at making small moments noticeable to the entire crowd. He gave a guitar to a young boy. He simultaneously signed autographs and sang, Sharpie in one hand, microphone in the other.
And the video screen caught it all.
The components of the Paisley package become clearer when you consider his opening acts. Worsham has the clever lyrics and charisma; like the headliner, he wandered into the crowd and seemed determined to pick up fans one by one in that quest to someday become the headliner.
The second artist, Leah Turner, turned in a powerful vocal performance. If you closed your eyes, you might have thought you were listening to Melissa Etheridge.
Paisley’s lead-in, Randy Houser, delivered a tight 40-minute set. He’s one of country’s rising names, and the crowd received him well. But experience and accomplishments aside, here’s the difference between Houser (and so many artists) and Paisley: Houser is a fine musician and strong performer who plays the full crowd well.
Paisley is those things, too, with one important extra: He plays individual fans well, and by sharing it with all, makes everyone feel like he’s their pal. So maybe you just could have him over for a drink.
Or to check you for ticks.