Gary Allan led an exciting night of new music and memorable hits Wednesday (April 17) at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
While still highlighting his go-to themes of broken hearts and regretful decisions, the California native kept the mood of his performance light by calling out friends in the audience and inviting his local co-writers to sing backup vocals on their songs.
"It feels good to play in Nashville," said Allan from the stage. "I don't do it often."
The last time he performed in Music City was during the 2012 Country Throwdown tour, although it may not stick out in Allan's mind since the performance had to be cut short due to rain. Ironically, it was just as Allan's single "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)" was beginning its march up the charts.
Safely indoors at the Ryman, Allan played no less than seven new tracks from his recent No. 1 album Set You Free, all of which were received enthusiastically.
Kicking things off from a tall riser at the back of the Ryman's historic stage, Allan launched his band into one of those moody new songs, "Tough Goodbye." Then, pacing the floor with a mixed aura of pained moxie and easygoing charm, the singer delivered "A Feeling Like That" and "Right Where I Need to Be."
Wearing a pair of ripped black jeans and a black T shirt -- and despite a huge video screen and bank of strobe lights behind him -- the singer kept the focus on his songs and his eight-piece band.
"I wrote this next song with Sarah Buxton and Odie Blackmon, and it's my new single," Allan said in introducing "Pieces." The midtempo number reflects on all the small moments, good and bad, that eventually make a person who they are meant to be.
Then, going back to the beginning of his career, Allan jumped into "Her Man," his first single from 1995 which he said most people don't realize was previously recorded by Waylon Jennings.
"It Ain't the Whiskey," another new one from Set You Free, described in soaring detail a man struggling with alcohol, cigarettes and "the stuff I smoke," all the while knowing that deep down it was a lost love's memory that was killing him. Allan took a short but expressive guitar solo in this song, an added bonus that he would sprinkle in throughout the rest of the night.
The first guest singer turned out to be Matt Warren, co-writer of "Learning How to Bend" as well as "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)." He was followed by the laid-back country of "Smoke Rings in the Dark" and a '60s Beach Boys feel on "Runaway."
Another one of Allan's new songs also worked with a beach-going main character. This time, it's a guy who's trying to drown the memory of a failed relationship with sea water and frosty beer. However, "Sand in My Soul" wasn't quite as cheerful as most tropical country fare and included a classical violin intro.
Later on, Allan picked his producer out of the crowd, calling for the embarrassed Mark Wright to stand up and take a bow. He opted for a wave instead as Allan remarked, "This is the guy I've made every single record with."
With his voice becoming warmer, sweeter and fuller as the night went on, Allan then asked his band to leave the stage so he could really let his smoky vocals shine.
Singing with just an acoustic guitar and his electric guitar player at his side, Allan performed the travelling musician's lament "Showman's Life" by Jesse Winchester.
"I hear George Strait is doing this song in his set," said Allan as a way of justifying the oddball song choice.
He kept the intimate portion of his show going by inviting songwriter Rachel Proctor to help sing on her song "You Without Me." This time featuring just a piano and an acoustic guitar, the song from Set You Free pulls a bait-and-switch as the narrator delivers his payoff lyric, "And it's so damn hard to believe, that's you without me."
He moved on through fan favorites like "Best I Ever Had," "Nothin' On but the Radio" and "She's So California," then brought out songwriting star Hillary Lindsey for her co-written No. 1 "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)."
"I don't do a whole lot of angry songs," said Allan next. "But damn it, I should start!"
"Bones" was the new song he was referring to, a Keith Gattis-written blood pumper that finds Allan digging a grave and promising that he's got a few bones to pick with somebody:
"Yeah, maybe you best just leave this town.
Yeah, probably before the sun goes down.
'Cause the devil already knows my name,
And you can ask him yourself when I see you again!"
Judging by the audience's rousing response, Allan would do well to keep that one in his set and maybe consider it as a single for country radio.
"Watching Airplanes," Todd Snider's tongue-in-cheek "Alright Guy" and "Songs About Rain" ended the night on a high note, and Allan thanked his friends and fans in the audience over loud applause.
Country newcomer Kristen Kelly opened the evening, performing a short set that included her snappy single "Ex Old Man" before Allan took the stage.