Remember that first time your parents packed up some ham sandwiches and a six of Tab in a cooler so they could take you and little Sissy to that big amusement park you’d been seeing commercials about on television? The same one all your buddies had already been to. Screw Barnum and Bailey. THIS was the greatest show on Earth, they said.
And finally, by God, it was your turn. Yes, that day was going to be the greatest day ever. Or so they said.
That’s a Morgan Wallen concert in 2022.
The chart-topping country artist is THE hot thing in Nashville and country radio right now, and people have taken notice, turning out in droves for his latest summer tour. A sold out Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines Friday night was proof in the pudding. Just how hot is Wallen? Well, five nights earlier Justin Bieber was in the building. Wallen outsold him. And his fans probably bought a few thousand more cases of beer, too.
The 28-year-old Wallen is one of these “bad boy” types who droves of women are more attracted to more then an outlet mall along I-80 full of shoe stores. They just can’t get enough of the thermal underwear shirt, trucker cap, and mullet. Oh yes. That mullet. When Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome To The Jungle” began blasting over the arena PA just prior to showtime, it wasn’t just to amp up the energy; it was the walk-up song for his hair.
Yes, he’s a bad boy of sort. After all, he got kicked out of Kid Rock’s steakhouse for unruly behavior. Saturday Night Live, too, after a video surfaced showing him using a racial slur. But instead of being canceled, per the norm these days, Wallen did the unthinkable: he became even more popular, as was witnessed at Wells Fargo Arena.
Wallen’s band was set on a rectangular section with a huge tilted “M” interspersed among them that doubled as a ramp. In front of that stage was a giant “W” catwalk. Morgan emerged from a small circular portion at the end of it to open the show, seated behind a piano playing “Stand In My Boots.” Alone. Just him under a spotlight. It was like entering the amusement park expecting loud music and speed only to be greeted by a giant merry-go-round. You were expecting instant gratification, but got this ornate, slow ride for little kids. But hold on. Turns out, anyone can ride it. So up you go. You look around to make sure no one sees that smile creeping across your face. It’s fun.
After that slow, strange, but admittedly likable start, Wallen did an instant 180, as if to say, “Just kidding. Here’s the real start,” and “Somethin’ Country,” featuring rock show lights and even a few blasts of pyro to boot, kicks in, as do his bro-country rap stylings. Speaking of which, Wallen won’t be winning any vocal contests anytime soon. His talk/rap delivery requires no subtleties, and his sometimes off-key deliveries are cringe-worthy. Give ‘em “Up Down,” with some fire and lights and they’ll be good. Which he did. And they were. But to his credit, there were no backing tracks. Tip of the hat to you there, Morgan.
“Dangerous” and “Still Goin Down” from Wallen’s latest record, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” were Sissy’s Tea Cup ride. You don’t want to do it, you know it’s going to suck, but you suffer through it for her. It’s not a real ride. And those aren’t country music songs. Once done, you race over to the Tilt-A-Whirl, hoping to get the energy back. But, as fate has it, “Silverado For Sale” and “7 Summers” (Wallen’s No. 1 single from “Dangerous” that broke the record for most first day streams on Apple Music) are just Tilters without the Whirl.
Hold on though. “Country Ass Shit,” as it turns out, is a guilty pleasure. It’s the swing ride with the rubber diaper seats attached to a chain on each side. The more you ride, the more you understand why infants love being strapped into this thing. Only they piss their Pampers. You don’t. Hopefully. It’s good, but not enough to elicit that warm feeling.
“Somebody’s Problem,” a song Wallen wrote with tour mate Ernest, was especially rough in a live context. Take away the loud guitars and thumps of pyro and what remained was a sin to the ears.
Time out. Time for a soda and corn dog. Something is wrong here. Why isn’t this the greatest thing since Tonka, you wonder? As it turns out, thankfully Wallen graces with age. The back half of the show was much better, thanks to “865,” his rendition of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” and the highlight of the show, “Flower Shop,” a stripped down acoustic song performed special guest and co-writer Ernest.
Speaking of Ernest, his 45-minute slot in front of Wallen gets an “e” for effort, but someone needs to school the young Nashvillian on how to use auto-tune for his frequently out-of-tune vocals. Yes, it’s cheating, but so is having bass guitar parts pumping out of the speakers — without a bass guitarist. Don’t think we didn’t notice.
Show opener Larry Fleet was exceptionally Chris Stapleton-esque in his delivery. While Fleet may likely never reach that echelon manned by the Bearded One, he’s nonetheless a legitimate country songwriter with a growing resume of music worth taking note of.
And speaking of Fleet, Wallen brought him onstage as well for a duet of Fleet’s “Where I Find God.” Fleet’s rich baritone voice was a stark contrast to Wallen’s. If singing was a boxing match, Fleet was Mike Tyson and Wallen, well, the meat. Kudos to him for giving Fleet the moment, though.
“Warning,” a slow-to-mid tempo tune, featured more fire — the real kind —and was another one of the odd pairings during the night. It wasn’t bad. Just not … great. Like the Log Ride. You finish wet and giggling but didn’t have nearly as much fun in the process as you thought you would. Still, it feels kinda good.
And then came “Don’t Think Jesus.” There were no ifs and or buts about it; this was Wallen at his finest. Stick to this template more, and he’ll be in rare air. “More Than My Hometown,” another No. 1 single from “Dangerous,” was a legitimate, hooky toe-tapper, as was “The Way I Talk” his debut single from 2016. Encore “Heartless;” “Wasted On You,” yet another No. 1 single from “Dangerous;” and the show closer, “Whiskey Glasses,” were the Ferris Wheel, Scrambler and Silly Silo rolled into one. All good.
And just like that, it was over. The slow train ride back to the park entrance, and then the walk to the parking lot, left plenty of time for reflection of what just happened. Was it good at times? Yes. Was it bad at times? Ditto. Will you come back again in a couple of years to try the new, hopefully improved rides?
Probably. Here’s to hoping Wallen’s evolution continues where the second half of the show left off.
We’ll be waiting with ham and Tab breath.
By Darren Tromblay