Until this past spring, Grammy-winning country superstar Brad Paisley had an unblemished track record. Over the course of nine studio albums, he's had 32 top-10 hits and 18 No. 1 singles -- 10 of those consecutively. He's likable. He's a risk-taker. He has a sense of humour. He appeals to a top-40 crowd, but he doesn't alienate the country purists. He's regarded as one of contemporary country's most gifted guitar slingers.
And then he went and released Accidental Racist. The country-rap power ballad nobody asked for featuring LL Cool J and some very contentious lyrics concerning the Confederate flag drew criticism, outrage and was promptly crowned Worst Song of the Year.
It's definitely the worst song on Wheelhouse, Paisley's otherwise stellar ninth album, which he's touring in support of. Thankfully, it was mercifully absent from Wednesday night's high-energy set at the MTS Centre.
Wisely, Paisley played to his strengths -- namely absolutely shredding on the Telecaster. Strutting out 10 minutes late in his now-trademark white cowboy hat, Paisley made up for lost time and kicked things into high gear right away with the one-two punch of Southern Comfort Zone and the raw 'n' ragged stomp of Mud On the Tires. And from there, the hits just kept coming, including the tongue-in-cheek Outstanding In Our Field and American Saturday Night.
With the hits came the cheeseball moments. During This Is Country Music, his saccharine ode to the golden-era greats, he handed one of his guitars to a girl in the front row. Celebrity -- which shoehorns in too many pop culture references, including but not limited to those screaming goats that were all over YouTube a while back -- felt almost silly.
A soaring rendition of the starry-eyed ballad She's Everything put things back on track. Conjuring the giddy feeling of the last slow number at a high school dance, resplendent in refracted disco-ball light, it was an over-the-top arena rock moment, to be sure, but it was sincere. Paisley hit his stride with a blistering cover of Van Halen's Hot For Teacher.
For several songs in the second half of the main set, Paisley and his band relocated to the centre of the room, in front of the sound board. While the move lent the proceedings some folksy intimacy, for anyone sitting in the 300 level, the sound was incredibly muddy.
Happily, he returned to the stage for the sing-a-long anthem Beat This Summer, which helped mitigate some of the sound issues. He broke out the blue paisley six-string for that one.
Carrie Underwood appeared via hologram to duet with Paisley on the ballad Remind Me, which also featured some of the night's brawniest guitar solos. From romance to raunch, Paisley followed that up with Ticks, the song responsible for the world's grossest pickup line: "I'd like to check you for ticks."
After a brief encore break, the almost two-hour set ended with a jammed-out rendition of (relative) oldie but a goodie: Paisley's 2005 Grammy-nominated single Alcohol, sung from booze's point of view. It's more clever than it sounds.
With his easy, languid drawl, Chris Young was best when he stuck to those great big ballads of his (Who I Am With You, Tomorrow). Disappointingly, Young closed with Save Water, Drink Beer which sounded like a giant red solo cup of sludge.
Opener Lee Brice, had his share of fans in the stands. The beefy, babyfaced South Carolinian didn't skimp on the amped-up, arena-sized versions of his career-making singles, including A Woman Like You, Hard To Love and the charming cheesefest Love Like Crazy.