When country artist Morgan Wallen performed at Saratoga Performing Arts Center four years ago, he was an up-and-coming singer filling an opening slot for country star Luke Bryan. At the time, the baby-faced Wallen was best known for his 2014 appearance on the television singing competition show “The Voice,” which eliminated him in the playoff round.
Times have clearly changed for Wallen. No longer the fresh-faced kid, he’s now a mega star. His headlining show at SPAC on Thursday night was sold out, and fans in the VIP parking lot took photos of themselves standing in front of the tractor-trailers – emblazoned with billboard-sized photos of Wallen’s face – that drives his gear from stadium to stadium.
How did he get here? After losing “The Voice,” Wallen headed to Nashville, trading the pop music he performed on the show for modern country. Then he started racking up number one hits. His most recent album “Dangerous,” was the best-selling album of 2021, despite Wallen’s banning by radio and award shows after an arrest for disorderly conduct, a suspension from “Saturday Night Live” for violating COVID-19 protocols, and a viral video of him drunkenly yelling a racial slur.
Wallen’s fans didn’t seem to care. He only became more popular.
“This is the biggest SPAC crowd I’ve ever seen,” said one young fan waiting for Wallen’s headlining set to start, as an audience member on the lawn attempted to scale one of the poles that support the amphitheater balcony before being made to come down.
After an opening set by HARDY, who merged loud modern country with a bombastic form of metal, Wallen’s band came onstage, shrouded in smoke and purple light, and kicked things off with a drum solo – another reminder that this particular strain of pop-country draws a great deal from hard rock. Dressed in black gas-station-attendant shirts with name tags, his band looked and moved more like members of Green Day than a trad-country outfit.
Wallen, dressed in dark jeans and a gray T-shirt, was greeted by deafening cheers. Unlike his reputation as a hellraiser, on stage he came across as fairly harmless – if a bit bland.
Wallen’s songs were fairly indistinguishable from a long line of country tropes that Nashville keeps cranking out: ballads and party tunes populated by four runners and Southern Comfort: “Up Down,” “Dangerous,” “You Proof,” “Silverado for Sale,” “7 Summers,” “Chasin’ You.” The crowd of over 20,000 had an insatiable appetite for it.
“Somebody’s Problem” was marred by misogyny. Wallen explained that he based the song on an attractive woman he once spotted at a stoplight – and that he and his buddy deduced must be “somebody’s problem.” Not a person, just a problem. Do better, bro.
Wallen’s voice – a raspy, brawny twang – provided much of his appeal. And his nice-guy appeal seemed genuine when he talked about how he taught himself to write songs, and about how close he is to his mother.
In a show highlight, Wallen performed “Sand in My Boots” at a piano, and then walked to the back of the amphitheater for a stripped-down set that included “Thought You Should Know,” “Flower Shops” and Jason Isbell cover “Cover Me Up.” He closed with an encore of “Heartless,” “Wasted on You” and “Whiskey Glasses.”