Gary Allan stormed into Reno on Saturday night with a new voice, a new show, a new drummer, a new No. 1 album and the same old hold on his audience. With the strains of “American Woman, gonna mess your mind” drifting over the PA system moments before he took the stage, his legion of (largely female) fans had every reason to expect another night of the often-dark, sometimes-jovial music that made the blue-eyed California country outlaw one of the most powerful, and unique, voices in the history of his genre.
What they got was something much more significant. They witnessed a revitalized artist putting on a performance so powerful, and so filled with risks and new directions, his longtime fans couldn’t help but recognize that they had just witnessed a truly remarkable evening – maybe even a turning point in the career of a still-rising superstar.
And that’s why you couldn’t help but hear “the” term every time you took another turn in Peppermill’s Tuscany Event Center.
“He’s like a rock star now,” said the middle-aged husband to his wife in Section C, Row 11, halfway through Allan’s second song.
“As soon as he came out, it was like – rock star!” said the tall 20-ish blonde in wranglers and a tight top with her similarly attired friends in the beverage line a few minutes later.
“He’s always been good,” said the 30-something man with the plaid shirt and the Dallas Cowboys cap, returning to his seat. “But this time, it’s like he’s turned into a rock star.”
That’s not a phrase one has often heard associated with Allan throughout his 17-year career, but you couldn’t avoid it on this night. In an interview with Reno Onstage last week, Allan had promised a new show and a new direction, and he didn’t exaggerate in the least.
Taking the stage just after 8 in black stain trimmed pants, a diamond-white satin shirt and a burgundy-wine velvet jacket, Allan was dressed more like a vintage Vegas concert act than a country outlaw when he opened with “Tough Goodbye” from his latest No. 1 album, “Set You Free.”
The song was the perfect opening number for Allan and his seven-piece band. With new drummer Larry Babb (most recently from Big and Rich) setting the pace with a hard-rocking beat and Allan putting his “new voice” (the result of recent vocal cord surgery that left him saying “I’m singing like I’m 18 again”) to its full effect, he left no doubt that this evening was heading into a new, and memorable, direction.
Much of that course was charted by “Set You Free,” an album so good, Allan cut down just a bit on the number of his more-popular songs – and the audience didn’t mind a bit.
Put it this way. When Carlos Santana came out with “Supernatural,” he opened his tour that year with six songs off the new album – a huge risk for anyone with a backlog of classic songs. But, he was so confident in the new music, he knew it would work. And it did, sending his career into orbit again.
Likewise, Allan boldly scattered six selections from “Set You Free” into his 24-song performance and without exception, they were among most well-received songs of the evening.
For example, when he simply said “My brand new single – right here” before starting “It Ain’t the Whiskey,” the audience reacted with its loudest ovation in the opening six-song stretch — and then enthusiastically sang along like it had been among their favorite Allan songs for the past decade.
Obviously, this was not a night for taking a bathroom break when the established star was singing a new song. Quite the opposite. In fact, Allan actually joked about cutting some corners on some of his more well-known songs, and the fans seemed to love it.
“I had some requests for some songs … that I’m not gonna play,” he said to laughter from the audience, explaining he would instead work snippets of them into a medley – which he did, with “Tough Little Boys,” “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” and “The One” each getting one verse apiece. (One of his earliest and biggest hits, “Alright Guy,” didn’t make the cut at all, and no one seemed to miss it.) Allan and his band raced through the first half of the concert at a breakneck pace, with barely any between-songs chatter. By the time everyone was on their feet for “She’s So California,” they’d played 17 songs in just over an hour.
That set the stage for “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain”), the cornerstone from “Set Your Free.” Its key line, “We all have thorns,” reflects Allan’s healing from many pains of the past. It got the biggest ovation of the night and set the stage for a closing run highlighted by an almost-metal-heavy version of “Bones” from the new album and his classic “Watching Airplanes,” which featured a vocal performance even more powerful than the 2007 original.
The most touching song from the encore was “Best I Ever Had,” a cover that Allan’s fans often associate with the death of his wife Angela in 2004. And it’s easy to see why, with lyrics such as “And it might take some time to patch me up inside, but I can’t take it so I, I run away and hide.”
But not for long. He switched from his Les Paul to a Fender for the climactic “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” trading leads with his sidemen as a bottle of Jack Daniels made the rounds onstage (and was actually used to play a peddle steel guitar solo). This wasn’t a night for a melancholy ending. Allan and his band rocked hard and loud on the show-stopper, obviously enjoying it every bit as much as anyone in the packed auditorium.
As was the case throughout the show, he kept the talking to a minimum in the encore, but did thank the Reno audience for their long history of support and said “We’ll keep coming back as long as you keep being good to us.”
That shouldn’t be a problem for his Reno fans. After all, they were there the night the country outlaw became a full-blown rock star.
– Mike Wolcott