Gary Allan – you win.
Walking into the Turning Stone showroom on Thursday, May 12, I was completely unaware of what I was about to see. My knowledge of Allan was limited and I had one favorite song, “Best I Ever Had,” but knew little of his difficult life or how his sound translated from studio to performance.
Without question, his polished radio releases do a disservice to the gritty, hard live show he puts on, bringing the dark edge back to country that has always made it great. When Johnny Cash would sing about walking the line, you could feel the truth resonating in his voice. When Allan blocks out the crowd yelping around him and focuses his razor blue eyes out into nothing and sings about no regrets, love and incredible loss--it too resonates.
Allan is no Johnny Cash and absolutely plays into the pop-country popular music scene, but in concert, he and his big Jack Daniel’s-swigging band have no trouble digging into the darker sides of Allan’s songs and put on a lively, engaging show.
True, the flawless production of Turning Stone doesn’t hurt any act that gets the full rockstar treatment on their stages--with an incredible sound system, talented light and sound engineers and staff to help with guitar switch-offs and various theatrics throughout the show, yes, the band had a leg-up before they ever played a note. However, I’ve seen many bands take advantage of that, play their songs just like on the album for an hour and walk off the stage after barely breaking a sweat. While others are singing about no shoes, no shirts and no problems, Allan’s songs make direct reference to tragedies like the suicide of his wife back in 2004. To watch an artist channel pain like that is, regardless of the genre, a weighty thing to watch.
I knew Allan and his bandmates broke a sweat throughout the performance because I could see it and although there could have easily been more solo and jam opportunities, those that did break out throughout the two-hour show were all solid. In shows like this, it’s easy to tell the performance has been rehearsed and the package is set to tour as Allan is through September, but it was still refreshing to see him and his band expand beyond what his albums would suggest.
The band, with three guitars, one steel guitar, drums, keys/organ and a violinist that also played mandolin and guitar, kept it tight through the whole show and was led effectively by their powerful front man. Complete with bullet shell-covered guitar straps, and tattoos wrapping down his arms, crawling up his neck and patterns snaking down his jean legs, Allan was a great act to watch.
When the band came out with an encore cover of Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” that dug in hard and showed off Allan’s inclination to lean to the rock side of things, it brought a satisfying end to the show. Though his heart-wrenching, sad country cry was just as effective in connecting with the crowd, this cover was a perfect choice for Allan and the band to get their last licks in.
I came in skeptical and left impressed. Gibson guitars flew around the stage almost as much as the guitar picks he and the band tossed to the audience that read “This pick was stolen from Gary,” and it worked with the show. I always appreciate a band that can shift your assumptions from first pick to last strum and Gary Allan did.
Again, Mr. Allan. You win.