in performance: brad paisley/miranda lambert/justin moore

brad paisley last night at rupp arena. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

brad paisley picking last night at rupp arena. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

It began on a note – well, quite a few notes – of blessed simplicity.

Instead of the video montages, the synthesized hums or the outer space light shows, Brad Paisley strolled onstage last night at Rupp Arena, walked down a ramp that took him out to the audience of 8,500 and sang a solo acoustic version of a hopeful music-making yarn titled Start a Band.

Actually, the reigning Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year fashioned what has become his winter show-opener for the Kentucky crowd by hitching it to a few verses of the Darrell Scott mountain soul meditation You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.

Of course, country music being what it is today, nothing stays simple for long. As the final verses of Start a Band concluded, Paisley did just that. With the snap of a drumbeat, a massive curtain fell revealing a seven member band and a multi-tiered stage with a half dozen video screens. With the transformation came the title tune to Paisley’s newest hit album, American Saturday Night and a huge, electric sound full of bright melodic hooks, sunny lyrical turns and guitar, guitar and more guitar.

Once the tune’s homey but symphonic charm settled and the realization set in again that was at hand was, in fact, a Lexington Thursday night, Paisley turned to the microphone and gave an almost sheepishly casual greeting to the crowd.

“Hi, everybody.” He said it like he had just run into friends in a grocery store.

That was a telling salutation – both for Paisley and the immensely entertaining performance he gave. For all the concert production’s sleek, contemporary look, the music stayed refreshingly focused on a country path – a rarity for any arena-sized Nashville act these days.

Sometimes the touches were overt, like dropping a verse of I Walk the Line into the American Saturday Night tune You Do the Math or underscoring the decidedly unromantic I’m Gonna Miss Her by emphasizing the song’s quirky stance of favoring fishing over romance.

But, as is always the case with any Paisley show, the country authenticity was found predominantly in the fingerwork. Forget the flashy stage. When Paisley got cracking on guitar – which he did regularly – all kinds of country tradition came uncorked.

On the rollicking Wrapped Around, no less a country giant than Johnny Horton was reflected in Paisley’s expert picking. During Waitin’ on a Woman, the guitarwork seemed to favor pre-country preferences – namely, the British folk and rock styles pioneered in recent decades by Mark Knopfler and Richard Thompson. And on Catch All the Fish, and its subsequent jam that led Paisley offstage and out for a quick tour of the arena floor, the merry sense of twang was all his own.

Clean, concise songs; a singing style as cordial as it was conversational; a guitar capability that, in terms of technique and improvisational instinct, was expertly playful – it all very much made a rainy Thursday evening at Rupp into a celebratory Saturday night.

Texas country party gal Miranda Lambert, in her second Lexington outing in four months, preceded Paisley’s performance. Though her set lacked some of the spontaneous firepower that ignited an Applebee’s Park show last September, Lambert’s performance was packed with impressive variety.

Hitting the stage to a recording of Steve Earle’s The Revolution Starts Now (a tie-in to her third and newest album, Revolution), Lambert opened with the coy Only Prettier but wound through the anthemic heartbreak of Dead Flowers, a boozy lap steel guitar-fortified cover of The Faces’ Stay With Me and an acoustic duet with surprise guest (and boyfriend) Blake Shelton on Home.

Arkansas-born singer Justin Moore opened the evening with a brief five song set and a rich, capable voice that continually outclassed pedestrian and sometimes pandering fare such as Smalltown USA, Backwoods and the absurdly sophomoric I Could Kick Your Ass. Clearly, this is a singer in serious need of a songwriting upgrade.

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