CHICAGO — “Isn’t it strange the things they do to sell records?” Brad Paisley said Wednesday (June 13) to a crowd of about 100 people gathered at a suburban airport near Chicago. “This is just odd.”
Odd, yes. But still 100 percent pure Paisley. He’s one of the few artists in country music who can take one acoustic guitar and make it sound like a full band is backing him.
Paisley flew to Chicago for the express purpose of performing a 45-minute solo acoustic set, dubbed Air Paisley, to promote his new album, 5th Gear, which arrives in stores Tuesday (June 19). The concert inside the hangar at DuPage Airport was sponsored by Chicago radio station WUSN (US99).
Paisley sounded just as good — maybe even better — in the absence of the flashy staging, pyrotechnics, electric guitars, background vocals and video screens usually used at arena concerts. The only real decorative touch Wednesday was the two vintage prop planes flanking the stage.
Even Paisley’s arrival was without much fanfare. After a private jet pulled up to the seated crowd, he walked down the steps and onto the makeshift stage with just a microphone and guitar. Before he started singing, he took ample time for some crowd banter. And at an event this intimate (picture a small coffee house crowd), back and forth conversation was easy.
“Why aren’t you all working?” Paisley joked to the noontime crowd. “Bunch of losers.”
Curious as to how the folks won their way into the show, Paisley started asking everyone what kind of trivia they needed to know to get tickets. “My dog’s name? And you knew that?” he asked, surprised that anyone knew that much about him.
Of the nine songs Paisley performed, four were from 5th Gear. Besides the current single, “Ticks,” the audience had never heard the other new tunes. But their reaction to his music was mixed with cheers, laughter and at times, empathetic silence. Like for the new ballad, “Letter to Me,” which Paisley explained was a way to tell himself the things he wished he’d known when he was younger.
“I didn’t know much at 17,” he said. “I just knew I wasn’t cool.”
As Paisley introduced his next single, “Online,” he took another crack at the fans. “This one is about the Internet, and a person who has no life. But you guys would have no idea what that’s like,” he joked. People laughed out loud at the song’s lyrics: “I’m a sci-fi fanatic, a mild asthmatic/Never been to second base/But there’s a whole ‘nother me that you need to see/Go check out MySpace.”
And on “I’m Still a Guy,” which Paisley described as really a sad song about how women have gone too far trying to mold men, every male in earshot laughed out loud when the lyrics boasted, “I’ve still got a pair.” However, after the song, he admitted to paying $50 for the designer Star Wars T-shirt he was wearing, perhaps making him something of a contradiction after singing a song about maintaining your manhood.
A medley of older hits, “We Danced,” “Little Moments” and “She’s Everything,” satisfied fans looking for songs they knew. And he even managed to work in four other big hits, giving the show a good balance of old and new.
The intimate acoustic show to a handful of fans was a drastic change for Paisley. This past Sunday (June 10), he was playing for tens of thousands of fans in Nashville at the CMA Music Festival. Next week, he’ll resume his Bonfires & Amplifiers tour of arenas and amphitheaters across the nation. After thousands of shows in front of crowds that stand up, dance and sing along with his every word, this kind of event must feel strangely low key for Paisley. And although he did say it felt a little like being under a microscope, seeing Paisley on the small stage makes his talent seem larger than life.