HAIL TO THE CHIEF
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The only country music trope more consistent than songs about women, trucks and dogs is the cyclical rise of the outlaw, the artist who represents the needed perturbation of the status quo. Ever since he appeared stone-mugging behind mirrored sunglasses and a curved-brim ball cap on the cover of his 2011 breakthrough Chief, that role has been played exquisitely by Eric Church. Country at the top only got bro-ier and shallower in the period to follow, and in a year where one tailgating anthem has taken the top of the country charts only to be topped by another, and then another”¦and then another, Church shunned the easy sells with his fourth record The Outsiders. It’s a rare commodity in the highest echelons of Country: a major-label album that feels like a comprehensive product versus a gang of keyword-tested singles. The good news was, people still really wanted to hear it, especially in his home state.
More than 15,000 came out to the Greensboro Coliseum to see Church’s grand return to his home state, roughly matching the size of the 2012 show in the same venue, then the largest crowd he had seen. Church has become used to these massive audiences by now, however. Chief easily went platinum, and The Outsiders is well on its way with the release of its fourth “” and maybe best to date “” single, “Talladega,” this week. It’s easy to discern the reasons for his Carolina popularity. Church was a staple on the regional saloon scene right up until the release of his debut album, Sinners Like Me, got him on tour with Brad Paisley. His national success, however, can be attributed to more predictable outcome: he’s simply a dynamite performer with an inspired live production to match.
Only a pair of guitars sat amidst the floor monitors before Church walked up, his band in tow. An array of a half dozen or so telescopic towers that encircled the stage went up, and 13 more spotlight towers between the stage and the whiteshirted “Church Choir” in the cheap seats appeared. The newly breathtaking scenery revealed what was to be an unexpectedly rock-heavy show. Over top a guitar lick that could have been adapted from Seger’s “Turn the Page”, Church broke into the opening lines of “The Outsiders” “” “They’re the in-crowd, we’re the other ones/It’s a different kind of cloth that we’re cut from” “” the drum platform for his seven-piece backing band descended from the rafters.
If it feels like he’s playing the anti-hero a little on-the-nose and the stagecraft stunts seem like just that, Church also seems fully aware. Church-as-antagonist is a little like Sting in his late ’90s corpse paint incarnation. He has provoked the right people and institutions (Jason Aldean and “The Voice”) in building his cred, knowing there won’t be much of a rejoinder. With a scowl affixed to his face, he went in on the bona fide rock portion of his catalog (an ever-growing one) with white-knuckle intensity. The quasi-spoken word “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” has a lyric about cocaine, flanged-out Def Leppard guitar, throbbing drums and a diva-quality backup singer going toe-to-toe with Church.
Even his older material was a little retconned to suit the arena rock aesthetic he has flag-planted. He gave “Country Music Jesus”, which decried the state of Country and begged for “some long-haired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash” a gnarlier, more distorted solo. Church might have likened himself to that role, but while he talks about being an outsider, it is Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson actually pulling it off (the two fans going blows with shirts off during that song might just have been arguing that point). Nonetheless, Church understands how to create tension into a sound that circumvents the tropes of mainstream Nashville on the way to greatness, even if it’s a path that we already know reveals itself from time to time.
In fact, his “Outsiders” tour brought along one of the greatest country outsiders in support. That he has Dwight Yoakam’s cosign and opening support is a powerfully legitimizing force, and an apt response to the fake ticket reading “Just Eric f’ing Church w/ No One Will Tour with Me” that surfaced on a parody site a few years back. Yoakam gave his usual superlative performance, and while Church isn’t one to acquiesce to the butt-shaking memes of his contemporaries, the 57-yearold Yoakam has made a career out of the reflexive response tight jeans and cowboy hats have on middle-aged women. Oh, and he’s also one of the greatest country songwriters alive. He tore through a greatest hits set that included covers of Buck Owens and Johnny Horton, though as a performer more fit for Ryman-sized rooms, his reverb-soaked vocals might have been a little muddied in the larger space.
Church knows very well how to bring the size of the space down, however. He dedicated “Sinners Like Me” to all the fans “”¦who supported [him] at Ziggy’s, Arizona Pete’s” etc., but his dedication to his home crowd went beyond mere lip service. Church’s Greensboro show presented the longest setlist to date on the “Outsiders” tour, going four songs deeper into his set than his other shows, most of which were drawn from 2006’s Sinners Like Me of 2009’s Carolina. They weren’t just straight-ahead renderings, either. “Smoke A Little Smoke”, a song that inspired the most pervasive t-shirt in the building, concluded with an easily recognizable nod to Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”. His excellent cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” to precede his Boss tribute “Springsteen” would also mark the first time he’s ever performed that song. Eric himself shares a few qualities with Bruce “” primarily passion onstage and, as his CBS “Sunday Morning” segment showed, unpretentiousness off of it “” but the one thing he doesn’t have is a great nickname that has truly stuck. Maybe the Chief? !