Sunday, May 5, 2019

dead of night

I'd like to imagine that Orville Peck rode into town on a chestnut stallion, his well-worn duster flapping in the wind behind him. Flanked by his band mates, their various instruments strapped to the haunches of their respective steeds, Orville sat tall, gripping the horn of his saddle, his face obscured by his signature fringed mask, his gaze steely upon the hazy neon of the sign affixed to the Broad Street wall of the Boot & Saddle. In my imagination, that's how Orville Peck arrived to kick off his first tour as a headliner. But, I'm pretty sure he just pulled up in an Uber.

A few months ago, my son, a DJ on a local Philadelphia radio station, sent me a link to view a video. He's done this many times before, in an effort to expose me to new and "off the beaten path" music. I clicked the link and, with the opening twang of a big country guitar, was immediately transported to a stark landscape illuminated by harsh red light. And there was Orville, a curtain of white leather fringe covering his nose and mouth from beneath a black mask and wide brimmed ten-gallon hat. A mouth from which an ethereal voice emerged — equal parts Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak. But there was something dirty and a bit malevolent about the video. Something cheap and profane and grimy. 

I loved it.

Orville Peck came to Philadelphia to do an interview at the radio station where my son works. He strode into the building all decked out in his cowboy finest — mask and all. He answered the questions that were posed, although his answers seemed to suggest he had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. He was engaging and polite and he posed for pictures with some staff members. He was mysterious and otherworldly. And he never broke character. And that's what Orville Peck is.... a character.

That night, my son and I went to see Orville at the Boot & Saddle, a tiny venue teetering on the border of Center City and South Philadelphia. The evening's performance had been sold out for weeks. We took a prime spot stage side and waited for Peck and his band to begin. From the darkened stage, that familiar twangy guitar announced the opening of "Dead of Night." The band then plowed though every tune featured on Pony, Peck's debut release. Lit by dim blue and red spots, he spun dark tales of heartbreak, drag queens, abusive relationships and odes to the seedy side of life. He was riveting, captivating and he had the room in the palm of his hand. He did, however, get playful and the mood briefly lightened when he and keyboardist Bri Salmena traded verses on the 1971 George Jones-Tammy Wynette duet "Something to Brag About." Orville ended his set with another cover, this one "Fancy," a sorrowful lament written by Bobbi Gentry, but made popular by Reba McEntire. And he never bothered changing the point of view or gender.

Afterwards, Orville met his fans and gleefully posed for pictures (including one with yours truly). He was gracious and appreciative and personable.

I can't predict how Orville Peck's career will progress. Will he become a huge star and sell out stadiums? Doubtful. Will his next album be as intriguing as his first? Who knows? Will he even be "Orville Peck" the next time he comes around? That remains to be seen. But, for the moment, was he an evening's worth of entertainment? You bet.

Mask and all.

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