Concert review: Brad Paisley works up a sweat at Cruzan

 "Country music always sounds better when it's outside," Brad Paisley said Friday night, which, coincidentally was the first day of summer.

 He more than worked up a sweat during his show at the Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach.

 Paisley's latest CD is called "Wheelhouse," which he says is an intent to push into topics outside his comfort zone. We'll get to the new songs in a minute, but you could argue that he's selling himself short. His songs for more than a decade have knifed through cliches with honest images -- almost like a Southern gentleman version of Jon Stewart. Paisley's music works because he sings what we're all thinking, only he can say it with a smile on his face.

 The audience sang along with almost every one of his 20 songs, with the one exception being what might end up being a big hit: "Karate," from his new album. The song addresses domestic violence in a tone that's a cross between Martina McBride's "Independence Day" and the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl," with the storyline telling of a woman who exacts revenge on her husband by taking karate classes five days a week. Charlie Daniels in his Devil-Went-Down-to-Georgia mode narrates the butt-kicking climax the villain meets, sounding a little like Phil Rizzuto did on Meat Loaf's "Paradise By the Dashboard Light."


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OK, enough references there. Just be ready for it, and note that it's going to be a hit.

Speaking of references, country music has a long history of current stars paying homage to the genre's heritage, and Paisley is among country's most generous. Let's see ... There were images of Hank Williams Jr., Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Johnny Paycheck, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Paisley closed his "This is Country Music" with a portrait of George Jones and the words "We miss you, George. You were country music."

Then there's "Old Alabama," which borrows licks from the band, enhanced by Paisley's guitar chops. He also worked in a reference to the Notre Dame football star with the imaginary girlfriend as he introduced "Online," a song about a nerd who lives with his parents but projects a much more attractive image via his computer profile.

"I call this the ballad of Manti Te'o," he said.

Meanwhile, those who know him only casually might not realize that he's country music's best guitarist. (Just give me that one, OK Keith Urban fans?) He writes in his autobiography that his grandfather gave him his first guitar at age 8, and he was fronting a band of adults by the time he was 13. The only flaw -- if you call it a flaw -- might be that he makes it look effortless.

Which brings up one other odd flaw: Many of his songs were enhanced by entertaining videos, most humorous, some even cartoonish and all eye-catching. Sorry to bring this up, but is it possible for a show to be too visual? Can you get caught up watching TV and forget it's a concert?

The other thread running through Paisley's show are references to his wife, Kimberly Williams, who he pursued after seeing her in the movie "Father of the Bride Part II." His opening song, "Southern Comfort Zone" tells of "kissing a West Coast girl underneath the Northern Lights," and "Mona Lisa" from his new CD was inspired by their trip to Paris. (Speaking of the new album, though, Paisley did avoid playing "Accidental Racist." Can't say I blame him...)

The Henningsens, featuring their hit "America Beautiful," opened the show, with more-than-acceptable modern country. (But that name just bothers me; it just conjures up images of a family in matching outfits whose career highlight was appearing on Hee Haw.) They were followed by Chris Young, a handsome, strapping guy with a very nice touch for love songs. His music probably brought more of a reaction to the females in the crowd, although any guy who sings about "All I can think about is getting you home... and watching your black dress hit the floor" gets a thumbs-up from me.