Brad Paisley, O2, London
Death in Vegas, Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth
Paisley is a defiant proponent of guns'n'trucks country-and-western
Sunday 21 August 2011
It's always an odd feeling, as a music journalist, when you scan the listings and see an act you've never heard of playing even a medium-sized theatre.
It's kind of my job to know these things. When I saw a square-jawed stetson-wearer called Brad Paisley playing the O2 arena, I did a double-take. The smaller Indigo2 space nextdoor, surely? Nope. The cavernous main hall.
The reason that Paisley managed to fly not so much under my radar as several miles over it is that he operates in a genre which still dare not speak its name in sophisticated company. The one thing, in the great tribal Taste Wars of the Eighties, that everyone could agree on was that country-and-western was rubbish. Even its main British proponent had to sneak past the defences by giving himself the self-consciously wacky name Hank Wangford.
Since then, with the help of Whistle Test and Uncut magazine, the new, rhinestone-free genre of "Americana" or "alt-country" has grown and grown, while selected proponents of old, grainy country – Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash – became cool. The mantra was "It's not all cowboy hats, you know". But for the vast, unhip, majority of Brad Paisley fans, it very much is still about cowboy hats. Paisley's own white hat is such a trademark that, until he finally whips it off for the encores, I'm half-convinced he's wearing it to disguise baldness.
The 38-year-old West Virginian is an unreconstructed redneck and proud: one song ends with the verse "I don't highlight my hair,/ I've still got a pair/ Yeah, honey I'm still a guy/ Oh my eyebrows ain't plucked/ There's a gun in my truck/ Oh thank God, I'm still a guy". Another, performed tonight in front of the giant words God Bless Country Music, goes: "It ain't hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns/ And mama, yeah that might be true/ But this is country music, and we do." In the same song, he salutes "the memory of those that died defending the old red, white, and blue".
This defiant Nashville traditionalism has won him countless awards back home, but in this country he's only really known for duetting with Robbie Williams on the soundtrack to Disney's Cars 2. So, to ingratiate himself a little, he drops in references to Oxford Street, and does a bad British accent. Paisley, you see, is known as something of a joker. Most of his material is harmless enough, even if it does little to overturn the prejudices of the Countryphobe. But Paisley is a sort of musical Gerald Ford, he can sing and he can play, but not at the same time. He'll deliver a line, then twiddle his fingers on the frets, and repeat. Once you've noticed, you can't un-notice. Just as well he's got back-up. He's joined for Louis Jordan's much-recorded R&B chestnut "Let The Good Times Roll" by The Rolling Stones' ever crow-like Ronnie Wood, who describes him as a "great man", and they high-five at the end. Then, for the arm-waving finale of "Alcohol", he's accompanied by the rhyming slang-friendly Darius Rucker, lead singer of Hootie And The Blowfish – a big-over-there, unknown-over-here band – and in his solo career, that rarity in country music: a black man.
Always one of the more interesting meddlers with dance and rock hybrid, Death in Vegas are back after a seven-year hiatus. A silk-shirted Richard Fearless – whose name always makes me giggle – hangs off the microphone stand like an Anglo Gainsbourg, in front of a band of younger guys (following the departure of long-term sidekick Tim Holmes), with new bassist/guitarist Dom Keen adding abrasive edges to DiV's dark electro-psych sound. They're here to road-test their imminent Trans-Love Energies album ahead of a European festival tour, and on first hearing – with songs that switch from soft, starry psychedelia to sudden sonic overload – it seems specially made to move bodies en masse. Even if, apart from basic oil-wheel lighting effects, DiV's show offers very little in terms of visuals.
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