ST. PAUL, Minn. — Brad Paisley served up a double dose of virtual reality Saturday night (Jan. 14) in St. Paul.
First, he stopped by Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show at the 1,000-seat Fitzgerald Theater. Mr. CMA Co-Host sat in with the house band, performed three of his own numbers and acted in a Guy Noir skit. Paisley played under-employed detective Noir’s new roommate, a nerdy/needy songwriter who pens custom-made songs for $15, operates celebrity bus tours and sells antique license plates.
A couple of hours later and a couple blocks away, Paisley took the stage in front of 15,000 at sold-out Xcel Energy Center for the third night of his Virtual Reality World Tour. You might remember this was originally going to be called the Camobunga World Tour. But after he saw the set design, he must have decided camouflage doesn’t mix with Paisley onstage — at least not like it does in song.
Paisley opened his 115-minute concert with the current single, “Camouflage,” as laser lights projected camouflage-like patterns on netting hanging in front of the stage. Of course, that was just the tip of the iceberg for visuals. In concert, Paisley always dazzles with state-of-the-art gadgetry. Unquestionably, the high-tech highlight was — spoiler alert if you’ve got tickets to this tour — the appearance of Carrie Underwood for the hit duet “Remind Me.”
There she was — Ms. American Idol, Ms. CMA Awards, Mrs. Mike Fisher — standing about four-stories tall, her hair blowin’ in the wind, singing her parts on a giant holographic screen. It looked so real, so believable, so OMG, concertgoers were wondering out loud: Was she backstage somewhere?
No, kids, it was the magic of virtual reality.
That may have been a tough act to follow, but there other major moments in this visual feast: a Paisley-made animation (he learned it online) with a Star Trek meets Star Wars theme and the superstar making his exit from the stage after “Water” by swimming away on video screens and Paisley heaving a football into a giant screen depicting a winter scene and the screen shattering like a broken window to reveal a beach scene for “Working on a Tan.”
Not all the visual effects broke new ground. In fact, some were repeats from previous tours, including the video of exploding booze bottles during “Alcohol” and the Andy Griffith video clip as a backdrop for “Waitin’ on a Woman.”
Having arrived directly from Keillor’s hometown theater, Paisley knew he was in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“Hello Lake Wobegon, Minn.,” declared the guy with the pencil-thin goatee. “This is the Virtual Reality Tour. Country music is all about reality, but it has the ability to take you out of whatever reality you’re trying to forget.”
With that, he broke into “This Is Country Music,” during which videos of Vince Gill, Keith Urban and Chet Atkins picking guitar appeared on the screens as Paisley himself tore into a live guitar solo. And the song ended with salutes to more country heroes than those acknowledged on the recorded version. Onstage, Paisley tipped his hat to not only George Jones and George Strait but also Conway Twitty, Lee Greenwood, Merle Haggard, John Denver and Hank Williams Jr.
As always, Paisley, the axeman extraordinaire, demonstrated his versatility and prowess, serving up twang, rock, blues, surf licks — you name it. (Note to guitar geeks: Paisley has a cool collection of instruments — lots of Telecaster-styled instruments — in a variety of colors and paisley patterns.) He even got the Minnesota guitar-star stamp of approval when rocker Brian Setzer, the Stray Cats frontman who lives in Minneapolis, sat in for two encore songs.
“Is Scotty McCreery Brad Paisley’s Love Child?” screamed a tabloid headline projected on the big screen behind the two singers. The clean-cut American Idol champ played along with Paisley’s playfulness.
“Welcome to the club, kid,” Brad declared at song’s end.
The Band Perry, the other opening act, helped Paisley on “Whiskey Lullaby,” with Kimberly Perry taking the Alison Krauss vocal parts. During their own set, the sibling trio demonstrated why they are a worthy contender for the Grammy for best new artist. The Perrys connected on the crossover smash “If I Die Young,” the current “All Your Life” and covers of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” and Queen’s fiddle-fueled “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
Never one to sit still in concert, Paisley worked all three runways extending from his stage. Plus, he had the de rigueur small satellite stage, where he strapped on an acoustic guitar for a solo rendition of “Letter to Me” and the first verse of “Mud on the Tires” before rejoining his band on the main stage.
The 22-song set explored Paisley’s entire catalog, mixing the sincere and sentimental with the silly and celebrative. There were four selections each from last year’s This Is Country Music album and 2009’s American Saturday Night and three each from 5th Gear and Time Well Wasted. The only cover was a snippet of Waylon and Willie’s “Good Hearted Woman” to jovially introduce “I’m Still a Guy.”
Speaking of “Guy,” it’s too bad that humorists par excellence Paisley and Keillor didn’t come up with a way to rework that ditty into their Guy Noir bit.
Jon Bream is a music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of biographies of Prince, Led Zeppelin and Neil Diamond. His website is www.jonbream.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonbream.