Orville Peck lived many lives before becoming the country-western singer who wears a fringed mask in performance. Born Daniel Pitout in Johannesburg, South Africa, he trained in ballet for 12 years, taught himself to play guitar and piano, and did voice-overs for cartoons and other media. As a teenager, he moved with his family to Canada, where he performed in musical theater, touring the northern country with these productions while in his early twenties. In his mid-twenties, he moved to London, where he studied acting and then starred in a play on the West End. Returning to Canada, he became the drummer of a punk band, Nü Sensae. Peck is openly gay and write gay scenarios into some of his lyrics. All of the above is not the conventional path for any country music singer.
Becoming a fan of American country and western music, Pitout developed the persona of Orville Peck in the late 2010s, while working in a coffee shop and living with his parents. He “wrote, produced and played every instrument he could” on what would become a self-produced debut album, Pony. As Peck, he donned the flashy embroidered suits popularized by country artists in the 1970s and added a fringed mask. He formed a band and took his songs to live audiences. By 2021, Peck was playing festivals like Governors Ball and even opened for Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden.
Launching what was supposed to be a 2023 tour promoting his second album Bronco, released in 2022, Orville headlined and sold out the 5,600-capacity Theater at Madison Square Garden on June 20. On that same night, the Cure played at the adjoining arena at Madison Square Garden. Out on the sidewalk, those music fans wearing black make-up and nail polish headed upstairs to the larger venue, and those wearing cowboy hats and/or fringed masks went downstairs to the more modest space.
Following an opening set by Ingrid Andress, Peck and his band played under bright lights and crisp sound. He launched into his dark country songs, beginning with “Big Sky” from his 2019 debut album. The band, consisting of multi-instrumentalist Bria Salmena, guitarist Duncan Jennings, bassist Duncan Hay Jennings, and drummer Kristopher Bowering, supported Peck’s rich, crooning baritone and even joined in some of his choreography. Orville Peck showed plenty of kinetic showmanship, but the charismatic singer’s remarkably outstanding voice was his most powerful instrument.
If Peck’s somewhat cryptic lyrics were challenging to decipher, his voice lilted such that his audience felt the despondency more than heard it. The thickness of his deep and melodious voice, packed with angst, was completely arresting. Peck strummed acoustic and electric guitars for most of the show, frequently allowing Jennings to rip into searing leads. The band rocked, biting off some of Peck’s melancholy edge.
Peck moved to the upright piano and asked the audience if there were any truck drivers in the audience. He introduced “Drive Me, Crazy” as a song about truck drivers in love. The show got a little gayer as he covered Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” After performing “Queen of the Rodeo,” a song not obviously about a drag performer, he and his band stepped off the stage. Out came Nashville-based drag entertainer Alexia Noelle Paris, who lip synced and danced to Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” while collecting dollar tips from the audience and from Peck himself. “Well, it’s Pride Month,” Peck announced at one point. He said he was gay and spoke briefly about some of the pending legislation that would impact the LGBTQ+ community directly.
At the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Peck and his band performed 18 songs plus one encore. From start to finish, he proved that despite being a country music artist with a non-traditional background, he and his music have the goods to reach a larger audience seeking honest music with a twang. Perhaps one day he will headline the larger arena upstairs.
[Editor’s note: One day after launching his Bronco tour with a sold-out performance at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Orville Peck announced on social media that he postponedall of his 24 remaining tour dates. “I am completely heartbroken as I share this news, but I have made the incredibly difficult decision to postpone all of my upcoming shows effective immediately,” he wrote. “I’ve come to realize my current mental and physical health won’t allow me to bring you my best.” He wrote that his fans “mean the absolute world to me” and that he is “so incredibly thankful to every single person who has bought a ticket to come and see us play.” He added that he does “not take it for granted,” and “that being on stage is my favorite thing in the world.” Nevertheless, he concluded, “I have to take this time to replenish my mind and my body so that I can come back stronger and healthier than before, in order to do what I love for many years to come. I truly hope you can understand.” His message received many responses of support from colleagues and fans.]
C’mon Baby, Cry
Turn to Hate
The Curse of the Blackened Eye
Drive Me, Crazy
No Glory in the West
Born This Way (Lady Gaga cover; The Country Road Version)