Paisley shines, Bentley intrigues @ Meadowbrook

Picture 1Country music today is what rock and roll was in 1974 – exciting, surprising and fan driven.

It’s exciting when guitar legend B.B. King lends his talents (on “Let The Good Times Roll”) to Brad Paisley’s guitar mash note, “Play.” It’s surprising when Americana goddess Patty Griffin trades vocals with Dierks Bentley on the tender, twangy “Beautiful World.”

On Sunday night at Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion, Paisley delivered the goods in spectacular fashion. But it was Bentley who ended up leaving the strongest impression.

Trucker caps and cowboy hats outnumbered headbands in the crowd, but onstage the power chord quota was high. Bentley laid out his agenda on the first song of the night (“Sideways”), declaring, “Take that redneck stuff outside, that’s what parking lots are for.”

The lanky Bentley mixed decent guitar playing with better singing, ranging across the enormous stage like a sprinter and covering a lot of real estate in the process. By his second song, the whisper/scream “Trying to Stop Your Leaving,” the crowd was also on their feet.

They remained standing until Bentley finished his 45-minute set, which included “Every Mile A Memory,” Feel That Fire,” “What Was I Thinking” (his first hit, with a tasty Tim Sergeant dobro solo) and his closer, the good-time anthem, “Free and Easy Down the Road I Go.”

Paisley, wearing  a white cowboy hat and CAO Cigar T-shirt, opened modestly enough, strolling to the end of a long ramp (extending across two-thirds of the floor) to sing the opening notes of “Start A Band” into a Grand Old Opry-branded microphone.

But the rest of the show was a full-scale production, as Paisley worked the stage’s risers and catwalks, while giant images flashed, music video style, across a 20-foot high screen stretched behind him. The entire set requires 14 semi trucks to move from town to town (it’s hard to believe Gilford was the tour’s third stop in three nights), and would have been more at home in a hockey rink or baseball stadium than the relatively intimate amphitheatre.

The show’s spectacle also seemed at odds with Paisley’s working class sensibilities, and at times it overshadowed the music. Fortunately, he eschewed smoke bombs and lasers.

Paisley devoted a good part of the evening to selections from the forthcoming “American Saturday Night” album, some – “You Do The Math” and the title cut – better than others. “Water” was overly earnest, while “The Pants” was a bit silly. Women in the crowd, however, did delight in the song’s refrain – “it’s not who wears the pants/it’s who wears the skirt.”

Even though serious selections like “When I Get To Where I’m Going” and his current chart-topping ballad, “Then” resonated with the crowd, Paisley played most of the night for laughs.

“Ticks,” “Alcohol,” “Celebrity,” “Online” and “I’m Still a Guy” are all charming, funny songs, and they worked as crowd pleasers. But too much shtick gets old.

And it was disappointing to see Brad Paisley, one of country music’s most gifted guitarists, perform form 90 minutes without playing a single instrumental – even if he did play an crackling cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.”

Next year, Dierks Bentley should headline his own Meadowbrook show – he’s that good. At the same time, Brad Paisley probably won’t ditch the entourage, tour buses and gear-laden tractor-trailers to hit the road with just a pickup truck and a guitar – but one can hope.