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What it was like when masked cowboy Orville Peck rode into a sold-out Stubb's in Austin

Eric Webb
Austin 360

There was a stampede on Red River last night. You didn't miss a news alert about loose cattle, though — wow, a review of an Orville Peck show would be a strange place to find that out. No, it's was when modern music's preeminent rhinestone cowboy played "C'mon Baby, Cry" at Stubb's, and the crowd stomped their boots in place, hooting and hollering and singing along.

A stampede in place, then. Nevertheless, Peck on Tuesday made his first trip to town since Austin City Limits Music Festival 2019, and this cowpoke rustled him up a sold-out gang in the meantime.

Country singer Orville Peck plays Stubb's on May 3, 2022, in Austin.

Peck's onstage persona is built around mystery — he always wears a fringed mask, and his real name is not publicized. (Interviews and fan sleuthing have produced some spoilers, if you care to look. For example, he grew up in South Africa.) He's a masked rider, galloping through the sounds of classic country music with a bullet for the status quo.

And yet, for all his work to present an enigmatic image, Peck's startlingly vulnerable on his songs, especially tracks from this year's "Bronco" album. The singer is gay and writes love songs about men (and songs about less lofty encounters, too). He told Billboard that "Bronco" came out of a deep pandemic depression that had him questioning his life and career. (Who among us ...?)

More:Who will play ACL Fest 2022? We have some guesses, with lineup and tickets out next week

At Stubb's, Peck fully embraced the storytelling tradition of the Nashville masters to tell his own tales. He sang about a "big blonde" who reminds him he's "been around long enough to know you can't trust a man" on "Daytona Sand." "I sat around last year wishing so many times that I would die," he intoned on "The Curse of the Blackened Eye," then launching into the yodel-adjacent extended vowels of "It's true" on the chorus, which the crowd loved.

Country singer Orville Peck plays Stubb's on May 3, 2022, in Austin.

Peck cycled through "Bronco" standouts, as well as cuts from his moodier debut album "Pony" and the EP "Show Pony." From the bar-floor sway of "Legends Never Die" to the clattering boot scoot of Gram Parsons cover "Ooh Las Vegas" to the bare-it-all piano ballad "Drown," he was on a mission to prove a masked cowboy has range, too. His backing band lassoed whatever sound he needed.

He also knew his audience. You've never seen so many men in Daisy Dukes. "This song is about gay truck drivers in love," he said before "Drive Me, Crazy." And ahead of the song "Queen of the Rodeo," he shouted out Austin drag performer Louisianna Purchase, a friend and collaborator, and urged the audience to "go to local drag, and tip your queens."

When we caught Peck at ACL Fest a couple years back, we wrote, "If the suit and the mask weren’t tip-offs, the showmanship was everything and everything was the showmanship." And it remains true: Peck's got 10 gallons of easy charisma and a maestro's way with his hands from behind a mic. That voice, too, is a powerful instrument, capable of low rumbles and high keens and rich syrup in between.

From 2019:Orville Peck: one of our favorite things we’ve seen at ACL Fest

Perhaps it's just familiarity bred by the passage of time, but Peck also seems to wear his style more comfortably these days. The elaborately decorated jackets and hats live on, and the conscious call-backs to Glen Campbell's epochal stomping grounds persist. But he's putting on the honky-tonk affect; it's not putting him on, and he knows when to dial it back to serve the song.

Country singer Orville Peck plays Stubb's on May 3, 2022, in Austin.

When Peck shouldn't dial it back is on Western showpiece "Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)," the encore number that followed the songs "Dead of Night" and "Bronco." Peck said that this song, with the proper audience participation, would induct those assembled into the Orville Peck Gang. It seemed all present earned their membership cards, even if they couldn't whistle into a backbend like their fearless leader. And he didn't even lose the hat.