Zach Bryan In Aus: The Story Behind The Year's Biggest Country Gig

20 December 2023 | 12:37 pm | Christie Eliezer

"I was quite a fan, and was aware of his moves, and this was a big opportunity to get him down here.”

Zach Bryan with UNIFIED's Jaddan Comerford

Zach Bryan with UNIFIED's Jaddan Comerford (Supplied)

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Fully independent Australian promoters UNIFIED Music Group and Untitled Group usually leave US country music superstars to the multinationals. But they collaborated for the first time on a Victoria-only exclusive by Zach Bryan – which marked his Australian live debut – on what became one of the biggest country music shows of the year.

Oklahoma-based Bryan is in huge demand in the US after his self-titled album debuted at #1 there. It followed on from American Heartbreak, his major label debut, entering at #5 last year. He’s generated 6.8 billion global streams, and Something In The Orange is now the longest-charting single by a male country artist. The American Heartbreak Tour sold out every show in America, breaking arena attendance records.

Nevertheless he took time off to come down for a one-off show in Melbourne this month as part of the Victorian Government’s ALWAYS LIVE initiative.

Bryan had charted in Australia but untried as a live act here. Two other American crossover acts Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs (Chugg Entertainment/Frontier Touring) had earlier in the year sold out the 14,820-seat Rod Laver Arena, both having to add second shows due to demand.

Demand Swelled

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Initially it was thought Bryan would play his December 9 show in a large theatre. As demand swelled, it got upgraded to the outdoor Catani Gardens in St. Kilda, then Flemington Showgrounds.

30,000 tickets were snapped up in 20 minutes. 44.3 per cent of the crowd was from other parts of Australia and from New Zealand. Seven out of ten came from outside of metro areas. The audience ranged from cowboy hats to families to inner-city slickers.

Heavy rain lashed the city on the night. “Thank you so much for standing in the rain all day,” he told the fans. “We’re gonna get rowdy tonight.” How rowdy?

Backstage after, Bryan was exclaiming, “That was my loudest ever show,” referring to the volume of the crowd singalongs.

UNIFIED had been running the boutique Gippsland Country Music Festival, a few hours out of Melbourne, for three years, selling out each time. ALWAYS LIVE reached out about the possibility of a country music gig. UNIFIED offered a number of options. Bryan was chosen.

“I’m quite close to Zach’s manager,” relates UNIFIED founder and CEO Jaddan Comerford. “Zach is quite a big fan of Vance Joy (whom Comerford manages). I’d met Zach a few times and been tracking his career since he became active in 2021. I was quite a fan, and was aware of his moves, and this was a big opportunity to get him down here.”

But as demand escalated, Comerford knew he had to bring in another promoter used to staging large tours and festivals. Untitled’s Beyond The Valley draws 35,000. The multi-city Grapevine Gathering and Wildlands tip 100,000 each. The 25,000 tix for two Dom Dolla-headlined shows at Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne were snapped up instantly.

Untitled were more than responsive when Comerford called. Both have their offices in the suburb of Richmond. “So we run into each other a lot. We have mutual friends. We have similar names so some people confuse us anyway. But we know each other and respect each other a lot. So it made sense to look at a collaboration.”

Untitled co-founder Nicholas Greco adds, “We’ve been looking for a project that we could sink into together.” Greco was a fan of Bryan’s 2023 album.

The show received “significant marketing” beforehand, including some as part of ALWAYS LIVE. But Greco notes, “Once Zach announced the show, that sold it. So many people wanted to see him and things rolled very quickly.”

High Energy

The Melbourne crowd was rewarded by a warm high-energy show big on heartfelt stories and American Dream values – Bryan even wore a Budweiser beer T-shirt, for heaven’s sake – and one which was totally endearing. After all, he came from a military family and had served in the Navy himself. It gave the blue collar-themed sentiments about life’s ups and downs extra meaning.

Onstage he praised the unifying power of music: “Music is the most beautiful thing in the world ... because it brought us all the way to Melbourne, Australia”. There was a hint of an old style southern revival show: God got a shout-out on Fifth Of May and he thanked fans for “bearing witness” before Dawns.

There were the hits like Something In The Orange (in the ARIA Top 10 that week), I Remember Everything and Going South, with the energy level visibly growing with crowd sing-alongs on boot-stompers Open The Gate, God Speed, The Good I’ll Do and Quittin’ Time.

The five-piece band was exceptional, given their moments to shine with solos, and the audience cheered when he dedicated Highway Boys to them.

Bryan made it clear he hadn’t forgotten the days when he was in the crowd cheering on his heroes. He allowed for three marriage proposals. An audience member holding up a sign, “Can I play Heading South with you?” was invited up and handed a guitar, and they ran through it together.

He clinched the set with two special appearances. Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy, in the country for his own tour, was a backstage guest and had brought along some friends. Zach’s social media influencer girlfriend Brianna LaPaglia, aka Brianna Chickenfry, had spoken about Kennedy earlier that week on her PlanBri Uncut podcast, rough cutting, “He’s got that Irish accent, he is a fine motherfucker, he’s got swag like no other.” Kennedy was brought up onstage for Boys Of Faith and Hey Driver.

For the encore Revival, the Irishman returned accompanied by one of his guests, Australian Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo, to help on vocals. The American even did Ricciardo’s signature celebration, a shoey. The crowd blew crazy, social media went into meltdown.

Positive Experience

Given his huge commitments in North America, it’s doubtful that Bryan will return to Australia at least until 2025. In the meantime, UNIFIED and Untitled confirm they’ll work together again. Comerford calls the Bryan collab “a positive experience, we have similar values and how we see music.”

UNIFIED made it into the Australian Financial Review’s 2023 AFR Fast Global List for being among 50 Australian companies which are building up their overseas revenues. It came a year after Comerford featured on the AFR Young Rich List.

UNIFIED is preparing for a busy 2024, with global tours booked for Vance Joy and Ocean Alley, and building up latest signings like Teen Jesus And The Jean Teasers, who supported the Foo Fighters, and triple j Unearthed winners The Rions.

He tells “There’s been a lot of talk about the health of the Australian music industry. It’s not always easy out there, but it never has been, and I’m extremely optimistic about where Australian music is at. If people are willing to invest in Australian artists, the result will be significant.”

Greco meanwhile reveals Untitled is “on target” to sell 500,000 tickets from 400 events during the July 2023-to-June 2024 financial year. This builds up from 400,000 sold from 373 events from July 2022 to June 2023.

Its latest addition to its festival portfolio is the AO Finals, which will take place on the last three days of the Australian Open. After drawing 25,000 to Christina Aguilera, also as part of ALWAYS LIVE, the group has Rudimental, Milky Chance, Cobrah, Bryce Vine, Destroy Lonely and Austin Millz, among others, on its 2024 tour list. Next year should also see Untitled push further into the Asian markets.