Brad Paisley may have provided the biggest highlight of the second night of the iHeartRadio Music Festival. And it took all of five seconds.
"One minute? Are you kidding me?" he blurted, mock-testily, not long into his half-hour set. As anyone who'd watched (or read about) the previous night's proceedings knew, Paisley was wryly echoing Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong, who'd set the Twitter-sphere abuzz Friday night by controversially spending the last third of their scheduled half-hour on stage profanely complaining about the countdown clock. He did not smash his guitar in homage to Armstrong's meltdown; when you're as esteemed a guitarist as Paisley, celebrity impressions have their limits.
Okay, so Paisley's take on Billie Joe was probably only the comedic highlight of Saturday night's five-hour concert/webcast. Musically, the nimble-fingered Tennessean was no slouch, either, but he had plenty of competition for best-of-night honors from Aerosmith, Pink, a Mary J. Blige/Prince matchup, and fellow crossover superstar Taylor Swift, among other all-stars taking turns at Las Vegas' MGM Grand.
If you didn't tune in to Yahoo!'s live webcast, God help you, and try not to punish yourself too severely as the rest of us relive a few of these second-night highlights:
* Pink opened the show by—unsurprisingly, but still mind-bendingly—getting aerial. What, you thought she'd be diving into a tank? No new leafs are necessary when she always finds a new newly impressive way to fly. For a half-hour, we thought she might have gotten her acrobatic obsessions out of her system, as she blew musical kiss-offs and mixed oldies with material from the just-released The Truth About Love. But as she started to sing "So What," her backup dancers suddenly turned into harness technicians and strapped a contraption around her well-toned waist that allowed her to do enviable full twists and somersaults over the arena crowd.
Not that we could keep track of her lips—because she seemed to be doing about 35mph or so around the MGM Grand's rafters—but Pink definitely wasn't lip-synching during the stunt work, either. The reaction? Whatever the antonym is for so what.
* Inside the MGM Grand, it was all but impossible to get online on a smartphone, a fact we attribute almost solely to everyone bragging to their buddies about the rumor that Prince was in the house. Sure enough, midway through Mary J. Blige's already incendiary set, a purple rain arrived—well, a canary-yellow rain, really, if we're going to go on Prince's current choice of bellbottoms. It was hard to top the version of U2's "One" with which Blige had just blessed the auditorium, but an extended cameo by soul-rock's No. 1 royal was bound to do it. "This is such a blessing," Blige told him. "I know you have to be very particular about who you mess with. Because I am." Ah, Mary—the very definition of a humble brag!
On Blige's rendition of "Sweet Thing," Prince kept himself back, playing modest sideman. But then came her not-entirely-spontaneous request to revive a Prince favorite, "Nothing Compares 2 U." "Let's do it a different way," said Prince, leading Blige's band into a considerably melodically rearranged version of the chestnut. At the end, they encouraged a crowd sing-along, and not everyone in the MGM Grand was quite sober enough to have learned the brand-new chords. But incomparability was still the word.
Is it too much to hope for a Blige/Prince recording project someday? Yes, it is, but forgive us for fantasizing. And we wouldn't even mind if the cover art had him wearing that sleeping mask, or beekeeper eyeglasses, or whatever Prince had on.
* Taylor Swift was far from the only one playing a new single over the course of the two-day festival. But no one else's current tune got quite the newbie reaction that her "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" did. Swift's performance came exactly one month prior to the street date of her fourth album, Red, and she could hardly have more of an advantage heading into it, since "Never Ever" is as ubiquitous a song as 2012 has had. Inside the MGM Grand, a few guys might have been sitting on their hands or chilling on their heels, but every female in the place was in full singalong mode, from tweens to the advanced middle-aged. Although the song isn't gender-specific, it suddenly felt like a jubilant female war cry. And a lot of men in the crowd had to be wondering if they'd be getting lucky when they got back to Excalibur after the show after all.
Swift brought about a hundred people out onto the stage with her to sing the set-closer... some of whom, inexplicably, were dressed in low-rent squirrel or woodsy-owl costumes. A nod to the rave scene, the fuzzies scene, or randomness? But it was clear, coming at the end of an otherwise greatest-hits half-hour, that Swift already has a new set-closer she can use for next year's world tour, if she wants to.
* "I don't know the words, but neither do you," Brad Paisley told the crowd, introducing a new single, "Southern Comfort Zone," that had only been released to radio the day before. It arrived in advance of a new album that isn't scheduled to come out till next April (!). Paisley's unfamiliarity with this new addition to his catalog wasn't a joke; minutes before his performance, his rep told us he was on his tour bus, still trying to learn the song.
What a song it is. From the title alone, you'd guess it's just another one of the many redneck/small-town pride anthems that have been overclogging country radio these last few years. But if you know Paisley, you know that ain't his style, and "Southern Comfort Zone" turns out to be as un-xenophobic a Southern anthem as has ever been written: "Dixieland, I hope you understand / When I miss my Tennessee home / And I've been away way too long / I can't see this world unless I go / Outside my southern comfort zone."
* Pitbull, for his part, is also all about the Southern pride. Miami is Southern, right? He showed up an hour and a half into the show, as a guest of Enrique Iglesias on "Baby I Like It." But his headlining spot was reserved for the post-midnight closing slot, as the iHeartRadio producers clearly wanted to end things with a dance party... and to wake up everyone watching on the east coast as the hour approached 4 a.m. Mission accomplished, as pop music's most muscularly genial chrome dome played air guitar and air sax during his samples-heavy set and did an effective job of transporting Sin City to the Southeast coast.
* Echoing how Usher had showed up with Swedish House Mafia on Friday, there were more R&B/EDM "duets" on Saturday. Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance joined Deadmau5 for "Professional Griefers." The transition from Calvin Harris' DJ set into Ne-Yo's appearance allowed for a one-song overlap on "Let's Go."
Keeping the collaborative vibe alive, Ne-Yo reappeared for the final song of a long night, popping up with Pitbull on "Give Me Everything" as the iHeartRadio folks gave the audience all the balloons they could stomp on. And then it was out to the slot machines to give the casinos everything before a return home with no money and plenty of bragging rights.
* For the hip-hop-indifferent rockers in the house, Aerosmith provided the real climax of the night. Their half-hour relied primarily on greatest hits, but they did work one number into the set, from their upcoming release Music from Another Dimension, their first album of original material in 11 years.
We've heard the entire 15-track album, and it's a corker. Rather than perform one of the three already-released singles from the project, they instead previewed it with "Oh Yeah," which is by far the most overtly Stones-y song Aerosmith has ever done. Steven Tyler and company didn't even introduce it as a new song, which was probably wise—since that's always a sure way to send people to the stalls—but instead let everyone assume it was an old classic or vaguely familiar deep track. The verdict? Hellfire, save matches, f--- a duck and see what hatches.
A side note, from more of a technical standpoint than anything: The iHeartRadio Festival doesn't have any trouble selling tickets—the two-night event sold out in under 10 minutes in this, its second year—but it might be an even harder-to-get ticket next year, once the folks on hand go home and tell their friends what a satisfying in-house experience it was. If you've ever been to a concert that doubled as a TV or webcast taping, you've probably wondered why you spend all that hard-earned money to have camera crews and cranes getting in your way when you could have had a better view for free at home. In this case, no one watching from the comfort of their own couch could complain about the visual coverage. But somehow, miraculously, inside the MGM Grand, the cameras and equipment were practically invisible, unless you thought to look for them. And there were no announcers saying "Back in 30 seconds... applause, please," so it was easy for the MGM Grand attendees to forget this was even designed for the web, except for the fan tweets that landed as a continuous scroll on one overhead screen. It was a marvel of fan-conscious engineering.
The iHeartRadio Festival isn't going to replace Coachella in the indie-minded fan's head, but for mainstream music heads, it's turning into quite an annual mecca, or Vegas buffet. Especially because, even for those of us who truly heart music, a half-hour's worth of almost any act—most of our favorite stars included—is about the optimal set length.
Pssst: don't tell Billie Joe, though.