Brad Paisley didn't need an onstage bar to prove he likes to have a good time. With a set list that included spirited party songs such as "Moonshine in the Trunk" and "Alcohol," the country singer's concert Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl was putting that across with music alone.
But two years after his song "Accidental Racist" sparked a firestorm he said was the result of being misunderstood, Paisley -- one of Nashville's sliest, smartest songwriters -- is taking extra care to present his positions clearly. So there was the bar, a sizable rectangle number with what appeared to be working taps providing drinks for perhaps a hundred fans over the course of the singer's two-hour show.
During "Alcohol," about liquor's ability to "make anybody pretty," the enormous video screen at the rear of the stage even offered a visual approximation of the so-called beer-goggle effect as Paisley played slide guitar with a bottle.
As it happens, beer goggles would've come in handy for Friday's gig, one of a few West Coast dates on Paisley's "Crushin' It" tour. Viewed the way someone who's been over-served might've viewed it -- with little skepticism and plenty of enthusiasm -- the concert was a blast of catchy tunes, casual guitar heroics and the good-natured but slightly raffish charm that's made Paisley a superstar.
There was "Ticks," in which he offers to inspect a companion for those hard-to-find pests, and the easy comedy of "Celebrity," which came accompanied by a video depicting Paisley in a series of recognizable pop-culture images, such as Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" video and Kim Kardashian's Paper magazine cover. "Remind Me," performed here as a virtual duet with Carrie Underwood, demonstrated his soulful, romantic side.
And with a fierce solo he played while running through the crowd, "Southern Comfort Zone" gave him the chance to flex his rock-attuned chops -- one indication of why the Rolling Stones asked Paisley to open their upcoming show at Nashville's LP Field.
Subjected to closer scrutiny, though, Friday's concert was less impressive, its broad strokes a betrayal of the nuance that defines Paisley's best work. That on-the-nose quality similarly hampered "Moonshine in the Trunk," the singer's disappointing 2014 album, on which he straightened out his old complexity for single-minded songs like "Crushin' It," an ode to drinking that actually mentions Bud Light by name.
The record was plainly inspired by the uproar over "Accidental Racist," Paisley's infamously misguided meditation on American race relations. (Among its clumsiest phrases: "I'm a white man living in the Southland / Just like you I'm more than what you see.") Yet the singer has changed course much more elegantly before, as when he followed 2009's liberal-utopian "American Saturday Night" with the convincingly down-home "This Is Country Music."
"Moonshine in the Trunk," by comparison, just felt like pandering to country's perceived core.
At the Bowl, Paisley skipped "Accidental Racist," of course, which likely upset no one. But he also left out cuts such as "Camouflage," a more astute take on the South's complicated heritage, and "Welcome to the Future," his thoughtful response to President Obama's election.
And each time he did play one of his knottier tunes -- such as the new album's "River Bank," a clever bro-country parody that sends up the style's cliches even as it embraces them -- Paisley seemed eager to get through it, uninterested in exploring the music's appealing contradictions.
Whatever happened to liquid courage?