The opening night of the CMT Most Wanted Live Concert Tour was stacked with young women just waiting to scream their hearts out for Brad Paisley . They filled Phoenix’s Celebrity Theatre on Thursday (Sept. 19) with screams when he came on stage, when he donned a white hat, when he took off his jacket — and even when he took a sip of water.
With a crowd so wrapped around his finger, the guy could have phoned the show in and nobody would have complained. To his credit, Paisley gave the audience a well-paced, 15-song show that segued smoothly from his up-tempo bluegrass-flavored numbers through sensitive, swelling ballads. Along the way, he gave nods to the Grand Ole Opry (of which he is the youngest member) and to ZZ Top (by playing a countrified version of “Sharp Dressed Man”).
The unique theater-in-the-round with rotating stage gave Paisley more room to work the crowd, and he took advantage of it. He was already picking “Wrapped Around” as he emerged from beneath the seats to strut down the aisle and onto the stage.
The audience, tilted heavily toward teen-age girls and 20-something women, screamed mightily as the spotlights caught him coming up. The handsome, young (he’ll turn 30 just before Halloween, ladies) singing, songwriting guitar-picker wore a patterned black leather sports jacket, over a black T-shirt, jeans and red boots, and surprisingly — no hat! The girls got a good gander of his clean-cut ’do, and it did nothing to stop the screams.
With the crowd cranked up by “Wrapped Around,” Paisley launched a solid second blow with “Long Sermon,” the amusing truth about where young folks would rather be than church on a sunny Sunday. They never danced in the aisles like this in Sunday school, that’s for sure.
Slowing down the pace and putting down his guitar, Paisley dug into the lyrics of “Who Needs Pictures.” The girls sighed at the thought of sharing memories with a man who showed true talent for crooning.
Then, Paisley cranked up the energy with “Two Feet of Topsoil,” featuring a round robin of vocals with his band members, tasty trading of instrumental licks and the crowning moment when Paisley’s fiddler placed the white cowboy hat on the star’s head to wild applause and screams. It stayed there the rest of the evening.
Paisley continued the “crank it up, then lay back” pattern with solid renditions of (in order) “Two People Fell in Love,” “Me Neither,” “We Danced” and “Munster Rag” before hitting the highlight of the evening, “He Didn’t Have to Be.”
Paisley teased the crowd while introducing “We Danced,” telling the audience that when he’s on the road, he likes to hear stories of how couples met, and he said he heard an unusual one the other day and sang the first line of “We Danced.” As the crowd screamed, he stopped, and said innocently, “You’ve heard it?”
It was showmanship and bit hammy. By contrast, what made “He Didn’t Have to Be” so good was its sincerity. He acknowledged that and told the audience that they taught him a lesson by making the song a hit. He learned that “all you need to write country music is to say something from the heart” rather than worrying about writing a hit. It remains to be seen how long some of his more contrived numbers like “Two Feet of Topsoil” and “Me Neither” will be fondly remembered. There’s no doubt that “He Didn’t Have to Be,” the story of a successful blended family, hits a major chord in a world full of divorce and single parents and will be played many years into the future. An added bonus was his soaring guitar solo at the end of the song.
Before they took off on “Sharp Dressed Man,” Paisley introduced his pedal-steel player Randall Curry as being from Phoenix. Spurred by the sight of Curry’s green crushed-velvet shirt, Paisley subjected him to a Joan Rivers interrogation about what he was wearing. As he admitted he was wearing a thong borrowed from his wife, Paisley joked, “If you weren’t sure before, now you know he really is from Phoenix.”
The band took a break as Paisley sat down with an acoustic guitar to play some new tunes for the audience, a sterling little ballad called “Somebody Knows You Now” and a more comic tune, “I Live for Little Moments Like That.”
The band came back on and he did another sensitive turn on “I Wish You’d Stay,” and then he shared the mike round-robin style again with the band on a rousing version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
The biggest screams of the evening came next when he teased the crowd with opening licks of “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” the tune where he throws away love for the bigger thrill of being on the water and getting another bite on the line.
Then, Paisley and the band left the stage but were called back for an encore. Even though there were plenty of people yelling for songs like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” Paisley chose to do “The Crawdad Song” (also known as “You Get a Line and I’ll Get a Pole”), a bluegrass number that allowed Pinmonkey lead singer Michael Reynolds to add his tenor harmonies to Paisley’s vocal. Still, it seemed anticlimactic: Paisley’s only misstep of the evening. Instead of the rousing finish you’d like to see, it was just lukewarm, more suitable for club or festival performance than a headlining act on a concert tour.
As the opening act on the tour, Pinmonkey gave a good accounting of itself. The band’s music carried the unmistakable flavor of the hill country with flourishes A number of young women kept yelling out, “Sexy,” to the long-haired lead singer Reynolds. The band’s brisk nine-song set included a bluegrass version of Sugar Ray’s “Fly” and a sensitive reinterpretation of Cyndi Lauper’s “I Drove All Night,” high-spirited dance numbers like “Every Time It Rains” and luscious ballads like “Augusta” and “Two Days From Knowing.” The hit, “Barbed Wire and Roses” brought the set to its high note with the crowd standing up and rocking out for the next few numbers before the band left the stage. The set was a great advertisement for the band’s debut album due out Oct. 8.