You can always tell when a country act is rolling into town by the voluminous increase in plaid shirts, 10-gallon hats, and leather boots. Toronto regularly has a diverse appearance to it, but it’s understandable if you thought south of the CNE grounds had temporarily switched places with Nashville or anywhere in Texas. The occasion? Brad Paisley’s July 2 Toronto stop at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre for his “Country Nation” tour, which saw Charlie Worsham, Leah Turner and Randy Houser (or “Hoser”, as Paisley frequently joked) opening for him.
As stretch limo after stretch limo pulled up in front of the Amphitheatre, it was adorable to watch pint-sized country fans spill out the doors, dressed up in their Sunday finest. It was not so cute, however, watching empty beer cans accompanying them, the clang of metal echoing after them as they stumbled into the bushes for a bathroom break. It can be exciting to watch your favourite country stars play for hours on end, but if you need alcohol to enhance the experience, there might be something amiss.
For the performers’ parts, they all gamely put on a show. Worsham, in particular, who was tasked with opening up the night to a half-empty amphitheatre with the sun still in full force, managed to get everyone on their feet and waving their hands. It’s no easy feat to muster up enthusiasm from the scant few who show up for the entire show, but he riled up the pockets as though he was the headliner.
Turner, too, made good use of the stage’s space, although she may want to practicing singing in front of a mirror first. Her clothes were, ahem, in need of a stylist’s second opinion (skintight high-waisted skirt? Spice Girls-like boots?), and she contorted her face during singing as though she were in constant pain. Plus, what was with the garbage bags lining the front of the stage? Houser was a more professional act, delivering a rich, booming voice to the now-filling crowds and strutting out on the catwalk to interact with the fans.
And then there was Brad Paisley. His is an interesting dichotomy of a show: if it’s your first time, you will absolutely have a magically entertaining night. He took selfies with audience members’ phones (even making a video on one), signed a guitar and gave it away to a little kid in the front row, sang a love song to those way far back on the lawn, hopped down on the ground and threaded his way around the crowd, tossed picks to outstretched hands, sang “This is Country Music” while a video montage of deceased country singers showed on the backdrop screen, satirized himself and his supposed ego during “Celebrity”, and sang the duet “Remind Me” with a holographic image of Carrie Underwood.
That is, of course, if you’ve never seen him before. If you have, you’ll find yourself with an empty feeling that grows with the realization that Paisley’s not only done this before, but it’s just about a carbon copy of his last concert. There was the same riff-trading with steel player Randle Currie, the same “jumping” into a pool of water to cap off the end of his show, the same jokes he makes with his audience, and the same, well, everything. The hugely talented 41-year-old has some of the best guitar work in the business and clearly has a knack for putting on one hell of an entertaining show, so why not keep making things new?
It can be incredibly frustrating to watch someone with so much potential seemingly hit a ceiling, but one gets the sense it’s not for lack of knowing how to break through to the next level. Rather, it appears as though Paisley feels he’s hit upon a formula that works and is content to ride it through until he’s wrung out every last drop of water from it. But for the sake of the fan base he’s trying to build, he’s going to need a new schtick, or his face will never be one of those featured in his video montage during “This is Country Music.”