He wore a mask and rode right into our hearts.
Mysterious masked cowboy Orville Peck has a bit, and he stuck to that bit Saturday at Austin City Limits Music Festival. Your mileage might very, but in this reviewer’s opinion, it’s a very good bit.
The alternative country singer (distinct from alt-country, mind you) keeps his cards close to his impeccably lined jacket, content to shroud himself in a concept higher than Willie Nelson.
You could hear his affected Texas drawl booming across Zilker Park as he brought in “Big Sky.” Maybe a little outlandish, when it struck your ear. Once you ended up at the Honda stage, though, the visual and the aural hitched their horses to the same post.
There was Peck, luxurious in a deep red suit right out of Porter Wagoner’s closet. But he’d stitched postmodern flourishes from collar to bottom hem: a cactus, a skeleton, a grave, a snake, all glittering with rhinestones. The Opry goes to Marfa. The man knows his bling, with silver coiled around almost every finger and a belt buckle that could cause traffic snarls on a sunny day.
Then there was the mask. Black leather. Gold fringe dripping off the bottom, covering his mouth except for when the microphone intruded. A little menace in the glitter.
On “Winds Change,” he sang about meeting “a lot of men who would call me pretty.” All the trappings, Peck said without words, has always been queer ― the wailing Western balladry, the boots with heels, the dazzling jackets run through with thread and shine. Peck’s show takes the the glitz and the chintz of midcentury country music and dials it up to a very extravagant 11. It’s drag of a sort. Loving, faithful drag.
And Peck has thoughts on drag.
“Have you ever been to a drag show?” he asked before playing “Queen of the Rodeo,” which is about a drag queen. “Drag is the last subversive art form.”
(Give us the co-headlining tour with drag country singer Trixie Mattel that we crave, Orville.)
In yee-haw solidarity, he also said he was excited to see Megan Thee Stallion. Yeeeeah. About that.
There’s no point to wearing all that fringe if you’re not gonna move it around, which Peck did early and often as he sang about boys caught in the rye. If the suit and the mask weren’t tip-offs, the showmanship was everything and everything was the showmanship. Peck lifted his leg as he plucked out notes on a gorgeous white guitar, like a yoga move called the Reverse Chuck Berry.
The cowpoke drawl works, when you give yourself over to the arty part of your brain. But Peck soared on the big notes, a fountain of lung capacity on songs like “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call).” Then, you wished he wasn’t so intent to stick with the schtick.
A cover of Gram Parsons’ and Emmylou Harris’ “Ooh Las Vegas” cracked open the seal on the mask. It was a rollicking, fiery performance. A scoot for every boot. None of it ― the mask, the Gene-Autry-goes-to-the-gift-shop suit, the tumbleweed baritone, taking the lyrical Old Town Road to the leather bar ― would work if Peck didn’t have the chops and energy. After one sustained belter of a note, Peck gave a sheepish cough into the mic.
Also key: a sense of humor. Lizzo might be the queen of ACL Fest this year, but Orville Peck was one of the most exciting new acts to be seen.