Showing not a trace of road weariness, Brad Paisley brought his H2O Freezes Over tour to a bright and clamorous close Saturday night (Feb. 26) at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena.
"For the next two hours," he told the crowd that greeted him with a standing ovation, "this is the summer of 2011." He was as good as his word.
"It's great to be in Memphis," he teased the fans after first warming them to a fever pitch with "Water," "Online" and "American Saturday Night."
An unheralded but crucial "cast member" of Paisley's show was the big video screen at the back of the stage. It was alive with arresting graphics -- cartoons, videos within videos, stylized drawings and sight gags -- that not only supported but enriched each song as Paisley performed it.
In the opening segment, as a video showed the singer climbing out of a swimming pool with a guitar strapped to his back, the real Paisley -- dressed and equipped similarly -- climbed a ladder up to a platform behind and above the main stage.
Such razzle-dazzle might have distracted from a performer less talented, dynamic and crowd-savvy than Paisley, but he was always in control as he paced back and forth across the stage or onto any of the three runways thrust into the crowd.
It's impossible to speak of Paisley's strong suit since he has so many of them. He is an always-clever and occasionally-transcendent songwriter. His guitar playing has the heartbeat of country and the note-pushing adventurism of jazz. And he has that twinkling, slightly wise-ass sense of humor one treasures in a best buddy.
All these qualities were in abundant display as Paisley rolled on with the tender "Everything to Me," the rollicking "Celebrity" and his defensive, chip-on-the-shoulder current single, "This Is Country Music."
The graphics for "Celebrity" introduced a character wearing a Brad Paisley foam head and hat and being chased by bathing beauties, paparazzi and various other space invaders. Soon after, the same figure came out onstage to slap upraised hands.
In "This Is Country Music," the graphics became a veritable history of that art form, with dozens of videos within videos showing clips of major stars performing. In one such juxtaposition, Paisley plays guitar in a video adjacent to one of a Chet Atkins performance.
When he came to "Waitin' on a Woman," Paisley virtually surrendered the spotlight to the music video he made with Andy Griffith. It segued into a video of Paisley and Griffith romping through "The Crawdad Song."
Paisley brought out guitar extraordinaire John Jorgensen to join him and his six-piece band on the good-time ditty "Catch All the Fish." After playfully dueling with each other on their instruments, Paisley left Jorgensen to anchor the stage while he, still jamming along, walked through the crowd to the back of the house, where he took a seat on a diving board-like mini-stage.
He noted that when he was a kid going to concerts, that was as close as he ever got to the stage.
After finishing "Catch All the Fish," he remained seated on the back stage, grabbed an acoustic guitar and began noodling his way into "Letter to Me," in which he reflects on the advice he, as an adult, he would give to his younger high school self.
"I'm living proof," he said during a lull in the song, "that no matter what anybody tells you, high school is not the best years of your life. Now college ... ."
Paisley struck up "Mud on the Tires" to accompany his long walk back to the stage. From there he moved on to the goofy frivolity of "I'm Still a Guy" and then to the bone-chilling "Whiskey Lullaby," in which Alison Krauss accompanied him via video.
His final cluster of songs included "The World," "I'm Gonna Miss Her" and "Welcome to the Future." He appeared to close with "Then," which was obviously so low key that one knew an encore was inevitable.
After exiting briefly, Paisley came back roaring with "Ticks," and the audience happily sang along. As this song neared its end, roadies wheeled a bar on stage for the real finale -- "Alcohol." Along with the bar came a throng of people who'd been waiting backstage for this moment, including Jorgensen, Sheryl Crow and Paisley's opening acts, Darius Rucker and Jerrod Niemann.
It was a bubbly ending to an effervescent show.
Rucker and Niemann more than held their own as opening acts. Both, by the way, are members of Paisley's extended corporate families. Niemann records for SeaGayle/Arista Nashville, SeaGayle being a label Paisley co-founded with Frank Rogers and Chris DuBois. Niemann also writes for that trio's publishing company. Rogers produces Rucker's records and regularly co-writes with him.
Dressed in jeans, a blue Nike baseball cap and an Amsterdam Rugby League 1974 T-shirt, Rucker launched his segment of the show with "Alright." He retrofitted several songs from his Hootie & the Blowfish days, among them "I Only Wanna Be With You," "Let Her Cry" and "Hold My Hand."
He also spotlighted such hit as "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," "Come Back Song" and the philosophical "It Won't Be Like This for Long," the last of which he dedicated to the recently-retired Nashville disc jockey, Gerry House.
But Rucker's real triumph of the evening was his high-octane cover of Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition," which he sang after thanking the fans of country music for accepting him.
He exited to a standing ovation with a slightly bluesy version of Prince's "Purple Rain."
Niemann, who brimmed with charisma and cockiness, began pumping up the crowd with his opening number, "The Buckin' Song," a lyric that taps into the most juvenile of wordplay enthusiasms. Then it was on to such rousers as "One More Drinkin' Song," "Good Ride Cowboy" (a tribute to Chris LeDoux), "What Do You Want," "Down in Mexico" and "Blame It on The Alcohol."
He thanked John Anderson (who was not in attendance) for co-writing with him the drunkard's lament, "How Can I Be So Thirsty (After All I Drank Last Night)" and followed with a creditable 30-second impression of how Anderson might sing the song. Niemann bowed out to great applause with "Lover, Lover."