in performance: red, white and boom 2018

Brad Paisley. Photo by Jim Shea.

Can one detect a country music artist’s influence by the t-shirt they’re wearing? Let’s take a quick check of the artists corralled into Rupp Arena last night for round two of Red, White and Boom 2018 to find out.

Florida-born Jake Owen donned an Aerosmith tee and wound up bounding about the stage with the tireless physicality of a gymnast. A spike haired bass guitarist for Chase Rice wore a Metallica shirt, which added to a set already ripe with ample rhythmic crunch (and click tracks and rockish pop and song scenarios R. Kelly might happily call his own). Show opener Ashley McBryde chose a Grateful Dead shirt – and, frankly, any stylistic connections between that and her music eluded me.

The point is that the artists setting up last night’s Boom episode showed considerable stylistic disparity that often drifted far from what even progressive fans might call country music. All of that made headliner Brad Paisley – dressed in logo-less black – sound decidedly old school in comparison.

Paisley, once a Rupp regular but now an infrequent guest playing his first show at the venue in over six years, plotted a course for the familiar – meaning amiable and largely upbeat songs (the introductory “Mud on the Tires” and the unlikely roll-in-the-cosmopolitan-country-hay yarn “Ticks”) dressed with equally sunny vocal leads.

But with Paisley, everything always comes down to the guitar work. No other arena-level country artist can match his level of musicianship (although Keith Urban comes close at times). For songs like “Last Time for Everything,” his playing sounded like a hybrid of Nashville picking tradition a la Chet Atkins beefed up with the bravado of Britain’s more schooled and tasteful fretmen (Mark Knopfler and Richard Thompson come to mind). Sure, the overall playful aspects of Paisley’s performance – the feux cell phone duet with Carrie Underwood on “Remind Me,” the video pastiche with members of the veteran country troupe Alabama for “Old Alabama” and even the more sobering video showdown with John Fogerty on “Love and War” – added to show’s balance. But Paisley sounded best, by far, when his fingers did the talking.

Owen’s preceding set took top honors for boundless energy. Lyrically, songs like “Beachin’” and “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” leaned toward the pedestrian. But there was such a marked and consistent physical drive to Owen’s performance – which included a brisk lap around the arena floor – that it was tough to knock the audience friendly feel of his set. The singer upped that mood with a solo acoustic reading of the late Kentucky country star Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”

Before that came Kane Brown, a singer with a back story of childhood strife no country song would dare depict (save for his own autobiographical “Learning”). Curiously, tunes like “Found You,” “Hometown” and especially “Pull It Off” were really modern dance-pop party pieces with a vocal cool that bordered on the automated. Last night’s audience of 8.500 ate them all up. But any serious country elements were, to these ears, undetectable.

A preceding set by Rice sounded almost as foreign. Bolstered by a pair of guitarists that favored warp-speed Eddie Van Halen riffs and the type of coerced headbanging that seemed more a product of Spinal Tap than Metallica, Rice let his lack of concern for stylistic pigeonholing be known during the royal come-on song “Ride” and the outlandishly rockish “Lions.”

McBryde, in her second Rupp outing in under a year, delivered the earthiest set of the evening, recounting tales of rural country misadventure (“Rattlesnake Preacher”), broader social myth-busting (“American Scandal”) and hapless domestic displacement (“Tired of Being Happy”) with a vocal command as natural, insightful and arresting as her material.

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