As the room resounded with the chatter of the ever-growing crowd — who were clad in more cowboy hats, fringed suede jackets, and large belt buckles than one usually encounters in Vancouver — Ian Badger stepped onstage. He tentatively finger-picked his guitar, as if the soft sound could capture the attention of the room. A few eyes slowly turned his way, but the conversations continued. It was only until Badger started singing that the crowd really took note. For his first two songs, Badger’s guitar and twangy voice were alone, only just cutting through the noisy hall. Then things kicked off, as Badger invited out his band, a guitarist, bassist and drummer. With the energy of three others behind him, Badger’s songs turned from emotive ballads to foot-stomping country tunes, verging on rockabilly at times.
While the second act was drastically different than the first, the energy in the WISE Hall somehow managed to continue its upward trajectory. Drag artist Thanks Jem, co-host of Brat Pack Thursdays at the Junction Pub, stepped on stage in a cowboy hat, boots and a sheer, fringed top and dived into a Shania Twain lip sync that enraptured the crowd. “How many of you have been to a drag show before?” she asked the audience. With a half hearted cheer from the countrified crowd, Thanks Jem responded, “Well you have now!,” before introducing fellow Brat Pack co-host, Jane Smoker.
With an impassioned and energetic performance of Lady Gaga’s “Yoü and I,” complete with an unplugged microphone, Jame Smoker kept the energy high and the crowd excited. After thanking the crowd and Orville Peck for inviting them to perform, as well as an acknowledgment of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations, on whose land the venue sits, the two drag queens joined forces for a final duet.
If the first two acts of the night seemed out of place on the bill, the headliner brought the entire night together, bridging the thematic and stylistic divide that had been established. With the audience absolutely buzzing, Orville Peck stepped on stage. The rising-country star, complete with a black and silver Nudie suit and his signature fringed leather mask, was joined by his four bandmates. Opening with the smouldering and dramatic “Dead of Night,” the first track on Peck’s debut record Pony, Peck’s voice immediately took centre stage. With incredible control and power, Peck’s voice dipped down to the very bottom of his register, filling the room. While his band were stellar, over the course of the night, Peck’s voice stole the show, the perfect hybrid of Chris Isaak and Roy Orbison.
A few songs into the set, Peck paused between songs to thank the opening acts and reveal his admiration and respect for drag artists — “Drag is the last subversive art form” — before inviting Thanks Jem and Jane Smoker to join his onstage for the next song “Queen of the Rodeo,” which was written for Thanks Jem. Channeling the extravagance and performativity of the queens beside him, Peck left it all onstage, putting down his guitar, tossing his jacket aside, and giving himself fully to the show.
While the sound of Peck’s music isn’t far off from the traditional outlaw country sound, save for a few psychedelic flairs, the spirit of subversion that imbued Peck’s performance was a truly refreshing experience. Though country music has a long but somewhat forgotten history of challenging social norms, its conservatism, both musically and thematically, have come to define the genre in recent years. But as artists and audiences who don’t or can’t identify with that brand of country yearn for different narratives and voices within the genre, it’s artists like Orville Peck that prove country music is for anyone and everyone.