"Welcome to the Virtual Reality Tour," Brad Paisley said to the nearly sold out Klipsch Music Center Saturday night. "This is an escape from reality in the real world."
Well, yes and no.
While Paisley's set was flashy, colorful, entertaining and eye-popping thanks to a light display that occasionally ventured into three dimensions, each of his songs, which celebrated the country genre with wit, humor, charm and twang, was steeped in reality and plenty of country lore to boot.
The evening's defining song came early in the set with Paisley performing the title track from his most recent album, last year's This is Country Music. There the 39-year-old singer ran through a laundry list of country tropes, including "tractors, trucks, little towns (and) Mama," before name checking a list of iconic country songs such as "Stand By Your Man" and "I Walk the Line."
But aside from paying tribute to his chosen genre, Paisley was game enough to play up its stereotypes, such as he did in the set opening "Camouflage," a humorous jam which celebrated the many uses of the singer's favorite color, including hunting, fashion or replacing the ever-controversial Stars N' Bars as the new emblem of southern pride.
Yet Paisley is smart enough to know that there is a world outside of the Bible Belt as he proved on "American Saturday Night," a toast to multiculturalism which sported a boogie-woogie riff so cheesy it was fearless and opened with the not-so-country line, "She's got Brazilian leather boots on the pedal of her German car/Listenin' to The Beatles singin' 'Back in the U.S.S.R.'"
He's also charming enough to pull off some of the best love songs written in the last decade. Ever since his 2003 marriage to actress Kimberly Williams, his ballads have taken on a more earnest feel. "Then" found Paisley in awe of a love that grows stronger with the passing of every day, while "She's Everything," is as fitting at a high school prom as it is at a 50th anniversary dinner.
"Is that really her? Or is it an avatar?" a concert-goer next to me asked.
But the best moment of the night came when Paisley turned his attention to a recent fascination, his interest in technology and its impact on the world perhaps the real reasoning for the title of the tour.
The best of his tech-centered songs was "Welcome to the Future," where Paisley stood amazed at a world propelled by technological advancements and filled with strife for social equality. After two verses full of smart phones and video chat, he quietly sang a verse that not-so-subtly celebrated the ascension of Barack Obama to the White House.
"Wake up, Martin Luther," the song's ending line began. "Welcome to the future."
But Paisley's dabble into such seemingly unconventional country topics is only half of his appeal. Beneath his pop culture-savvy lyrics was the heart of a true country music savant. His West Virginia voice was as smooth as the drink he sang about in "Whiskey Lullaby"; his blistering guitar chops like that of Eddie Van Halen on biscuits and gravy; and his nice-guy charm was so relaxed and commanding that he could have been performing on his front porch as opposed to a 24,000 seat concert venue.
Paisley's easy-going charisma seemed to have worn off on opening act Scotty McCreery, last year's American Idol winner. Just 18 years old, McCreery was cool and relaxed, everything he wasn't during a botched lip-sync performance during last year's Thanksgiving Parade. His brand of cheesy small-town country ballads, including the hilariously titled "I Love You This Big," meshed with his aw-shucks demeanor passably enough for the tweeners in attendance who texted him into stardom.
The Band Perry, a trio composed of a sister and her two brothers, followed McCreery and served as the Target equivalent to the Wal-Mart country of Lady Antebellum, a similar act. Lead singer Kimberly Perry was peppy and cute while she frolicked about stage in her fluffy black dress, while brothers Neil and Reid were content enough to look cute and smile while singing back up.
Their happy-go-lucky stage presence stood in stark contrast to their biggest hit "If I Die Young," a macabre tune about a suicidal person who wonders if their family will miss them. Perhaps they should remember that jokes help people through tough times too, a lesson Paisley most likely has written on the inside of his cowboy hat.