SOUTHAVEN, Miss. -- Almost every country singer has been known to get up on stage and say something like, "If y'all don't mind, we'll just play all night!" In the case of Brad Paisley, he's not kidding.
The first show of his Paisley Party 2009 tour -- here Thursday night (Jan. 15) at the Desoto Civic Center -- started promptly at 7:30 p.m., and he didn't wrap things up until about 20 minutes till midnight. The funny thing is, the night moved very quickly, as did the condensed sets by Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker and surprise guest Gene Watson.
With more than a decade on the country charts, Paisley is forced to trim some early hits from the set, and the ballads are always the first to go. Fortunately, "Start a Band" is really fun to hear in concert, especially with a special digital appearance by Keith Urban on his verse. With perhaps the most innovative imagination in country music, Paisley makes the most of today's technological opportunities, giving face time to Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Andy Griffith, B.B. King, Alison Krauss and Taylor Swift -- without actually having to haul them around.
Over the last few years, some fans have grumbled that all of Paisley's new songs are too joke-y. There may be an argument for that, but in the context of his set list, you never really notice since he staggers novelties like "I'm Still a Guy" and "Celebrity" with "Waitin' on a Woman" and "Whiskey Lullaby." And the thing about silly songs is that they're easy to remember and, thus, perfect for crowd singalongs (like "Aaaaal-cohol").
Because the venue is only about 20 minutes from Memphis, Tenn., Paisley expressed his gratitude to be playing near the old stomping grounds of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, and both faces drew enthusiastic applause when they were projected on the big screen during "When I Get Where I'm Going." He also tipped his hat to Jerry Reed (with a snippet of "East Bound and Down"), as well as Hank Williams Jr. and Alabama (with reverent renditions of "A Country Boy Can Survive" and "Dixieland Delight").
Paisley also sets himself apart from the pack by featuring his own animation during the show. Sometimes I'd catch myself getting so wrapped up in the visuals, that I'd lose track of him on the stage. Luckily, I had seats toward the middle of the venue and could see pretty well. Yet, even for those folks way in the back in the very-nearly-full house, Paisley capably puts on a spectacle.
As the middle act, Dierks Bentley kept his set list tight, and his visual elements were limited to two medium-sized screens on either side of the stage and a gigantic red-and-white-striped backdrop. Overall, it's a minimal presentation for an arena show, but it's still effective. Besides, if you're trying to keep an eye on him, you may not have time to notice anything else. I don't think I've ever seen anybody move around so much -- and that's a compliment. It wasn't until the fourth song, "Trying to Stop Your Leaving," that he finally stayed in one place to sing, yet he never sounded winded.
Bentley's set is short -- only 10 songs -- so there isn't much room to preview the music from his upcoming album that's due Feb. 3. In fact, he only performed two new songs, "Feel That Fire" and a brisk, drinking song, "Sideways." Bentley might consider taking a cue from Paisley and drop one more "old song" (relatively speaking) in favor of a fresh tune. From what I've heard, most of his new music is upbeat and would lend itself well to an arena setting. And I think most country fans love it when an artist says, "So do you guys want to hear something new?"
Meanwhile, people who try to listen carefully to the lyrics (like me) will appreciate this story: Bentley was leaning over the thrust, singing "Settle for a Slowdown" and shaking hands with the crowd when one girl refused to let go. Can you guess the lyric that just happened to come next? "I held on longer than I should ... ."
Darius Rucker relied mostly on music from his country album, which didn't sound out of place at all on this tour. Only once did he embrace his Hootie & the Blowfish heritage by turning "Let Her Cry" into a very sad, slow country tune. As many times as we've all heard that song and breezily sang along, this version turns it into a tear-in-your-beer weeper. It's virtually unrecognizable, although I'd certainly like to hear it performed that way again. He closed his set with "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," his first country single and a No. 1 hit.
This is Paisley's last leg of his Paisley Party tour, so he invited Gene Watson -- a popular country singer in the '70s and '80s -- to be the night's first performer. It makes sense, especially because Watson's most enduring hit is "Farewell Party," which he performed with gusto. As a fan of the very traditional singer, I was also tickled to hear "Should I Come Home or Should I Go Crazy," "Love in the Hot Afternoon," "Fourteen Carat Mind" and "Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)."
With so much music, it's no wonder this concert lasted four hours. Party on, dudes.