Brad Paisley/Zac Brown Band review – country music celebrated … and subverted

O2 Arena, London
Hats off to two entertaining stars of the C2C festival who take contrasting approaches to God, the south and the good ol’ US of A

Brad Paisley makes his entrance on to the stage of the O2 arena to a fanfare of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Whatever weaknesses the West Virginian country megastar may suffer, an incapacitating lack of confidence is not among them.

Paisley is the headliner of the opening night of the London leg of this year’s Country 2 Country festival – an annual event, launched in 2013, that now rotates Nashville aristocracy through London, Glasgow and Dublin over a weekend, supported by local country and countryish acts on smaller stages. C2C is largely consecrated to a particular strain of country: that of glossy, modern, orthodox pop-country, a genre Paisley epitomises. Except to the extent that he doesn’t.

Paisley’s oeuvre has been distinguished by a willingness to play with the tropes of country and the expectations of his audience: lurking in his catalogue are songs expressing wry ambivalence about such totems as God, the south, machismo and the US of A. (American Saturday Night, played second tonight, is – beneath its apparent frat-country title – a lusty embrace of immigration and multiculturalism.)

Paisley walks this line with insouciant poise – live, as on record, able to get away with teasing listeners by embracing his own frailties and/or absurdities. A very funny new song, a deprecation of Instagram narcissism called Ashamed of Your Selfie, works all the better because Paisley has set it up with earlier goofing with iPhones plucked from the crowd; by way of demonstrating his diligence in researching local mores, Paisley admonishes men for sending “Some girl you just met / Pictures of your little Vernon Kay.”

Doggedly observant … Zac Brown.
Doggedly observant … Zac Brown. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

On a weekend like this, it seems fairer than usual to judge a man by his hat. Whereas Paisley sports the self-aware show-off’s huge, white titfer turned rakishly up at the sides, Atlanta’s Zac Brown, who closes C2C on Sunday night, plumps for something black and flat-brimmed: the headgear of a man with little time for nonsense.

Brown – like Paisley, a multi-platinum-selling, Grammy-winning, arena-country phenomenon – is an obvious musical descendant of Charlie Daniels, another bearded behemoth who named his band “Band” (Brown cheerfully cops to this by covering The Devil Went Down to Georgia). However, Brown altogether lacks the whiff of belligerent menace that always gave Daniels an edge, and where Paisley regards country’s cliches as material to be stretched, shredded or subversively repurposed, Brown swaddles himself in them, utterly straight-faced.

Nothing about Brown’s show is bad. He is an affable presence, his band are superb and are capable of conjuring the extraordinary – the clear highlight is an astounding version of the Who’s Baba O’Riley as a Skynyrdesque southern-rock epic, illuminated by Jimmy De Martini’s fiddle pyrotechnics. (An earlier, note-perfect Bohemian Rhapsody is technically impressive but bewilderingly incongruous.) It’s just that all Brown’s verses are doggedly, ploddingly observant of every convention governing country songs about heartbreak and fatherhood, and all his choruses sound unnervingly like commercials for whichever drink they mention.


Andrew Mueller

The GuardianTramp

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