Brad Paisley's cowboy hat, down-home West Virginian accent and narrative themes reinforce his identity as a country artist. But for nearly two hours Saturday at a packed Wrigley Field, the singer's skillful guitar leads showed that, at heart, he's a huge admirer of classic rock. His skillful playing fortunately overshadowed an array of visual distractions, including a Carrie Underwood hologram. Encompassing styles ranging from surf to Bakersfield and Western swing, Paisley enabled both variety and virtuosity to blossom in a party atmosphere.
Such diversity, along with a sharp wit and command of the fretboard, helped the 39-year-old rank among the highest-earning and -charting stars of the past decade. He's won several Grammys and more than a dozen Country Music Association awards. Unafraid of camp or levity, Paisley seems to prize fun above all else save the quality of his band.
Backed by a sextet, the front man took the performance of songs seriously, calling for percussive muscle behind rhythms and swaggering fiddle counterpoints to complement his own passages. Big, catchy and confident, Paisley's material thrived in the stadium setting. An abundance of lyrics about outdoor pursuits and summer pleasures didn't hurt. Recurring allusions to legendary country predecessors—Alabama on "Old Alabama," Waylon Jennings before "I'm Still a Guy," a Hall of Fame roll call during "This Is Country Music"— connected the past with the present. So did Paisley's duet with Kimberly Perry on "Whiskey Lullaby," etched with the time-honed staples of drink, heartbreak and tragedy.
Yet Paisley often ventured beyond honky tonk, tacking on codas in the form of guitar solos steeped in texture and tone. Avoiding self-gratuitous displays, he favored a clean twang, overindulging only during "The Nervous Breakdown," an instrumental accompanied by silly animations. Whether joking about the "feminization of males" or parodying fame with a caricature version of himself, Paisley welcomed goofiness, even when it threatened to suffocate songs. However, he needn't any of the cornball trappings or local name-dropping references to impress. Just a Fender Telecaster.
Paisley jogged across the stage, fell to his knees and walked a midst the crowd on several occasions. He made notes scamper, snarl, rattle, rumble and gallop. The vocalist adopted the melody from Prince's "Purple Rain" for a soulful read of "She's Everything," issued dance invitations on "Water" and shredded on "Welcome to the Future." Having nearly rescued "Sweet Home Chicago" from cliched status by recasting it as a West Texas blues, Paisley proved contemporary country has its first guitar hero in recent memory.
Fiery opener Miranda Lambert asserted girl power with Southern sass and charm. She sang of cigarettes, tattoos and women scorned on a series rambunctious tunes, the best of which sprang from her brief turn with bad-girl harmony trio Pistol Annies.