When it comes to honoring the traditions of country music, Eric Church preaches a good game.
His song “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” pays respects to Merle Haggard. “Country Music Jesus” calls for a second coming in the genre, one led by a “long-haired hippie prophet reading from the book of Johnny Cash.” And in “Lotta Boot Left to Fill,” he invokes Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams and chides poseurs who sing about Johnny Cash: “The man in black would have whipped your ass.”
Church is as modern country as any. Much of his music is guitar-fortified, rooted in rock, especially Southern rock. However, he has separated himself from the brotherhood of those who sing solely about big trucks, small towns, cold beers and hot women. Church, instead, takes lyrical routes more akin to the heroes he sings about, including Bruce Springsteen. And it has endeared him to an enormous and ravenous fan base.
Friday night, Church played to about 18,000 fans who packed the Sprint Center and treated him like a legend. Backed by a stout four-piece band that looked more attired for a show at Rockfest and than the Grand Old Opry, he treated them to more than two hours of music and a set list drawn from a catalog that goes back eight years and comprises five albums.
He opened with “The Outsiders,” the title track from his most recent album and a song that stakes an outlaw position: “They’re the in crowd; we’re the other ones.” And by “we” he means “the ones they told you to run from.” It set the mood for the rest of a night filled with loud, rousing moments.
After that came “Creepin’,” one of his 15 top 20 country hits. He performed seven of those, including “Drink in My Hand,” which aroused the loudest and most delirious of many singalongs.
He performed on an in-the-round stage that sat at one end of the arena and was equipped with two catwalks that extended into the crowd on the floor. Church and his mates made good use of both. There was a steady light show, too, and during “Country Music Jesus,” rigging elevated the drummer and his drum kit high above the stage. During “Devil, Devil,” a menacing, inflatable three-story demon arose by the soundboard.
Church was clearly humbled and enthused by the size of the crowd and the response it gave him. He recalled earlier shows in Kansas City — at the Beaumont Club, at the Midland theater, in the Power & Light District and opening for George Strait at the Sprint Center — acknowledging his precipitous rise in popularity and thanking those who have followed him all the way.
He gave them plenty of reasons to return the enthusiasm. “Guys Like Me,” “Jack Daniels,” “Cold One” and “Smoke a Little Smoke” all prompted the kinds of ovations you hear in a football stadium when the home team is winning. During “These Boots,” a few thousand doffed boots and raised them high.
Toward the end of the show, he performed one of his biggest and most beloved hits, “Springsteen,” a gust of nostalgia for adolescence and its fading innocence. He started it with the first verse of “Dancing in the Dark,” then segued into his own song. Toward the end he dropped in a verse from “Born to Run.” And the crowd sang along with him all the way.
It didn’t feel like something Cash or the Hag would do, but all traditions were born sometime, and Church is doing his part to start a few of his own.
He’s more of a theater guy, but even in an arena, Yoakam put on an entertaining one-hour opening set. It included many of his hits and favorites: “Little Sister,” “Streets of Bakersfield,” “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” “Little Ways” and “Guitars, Cadillacs.”
Eric Church’s set list
The Outsiders; Creepin’; Guys Like Me; I’m Gettin’ Stoned; Talladega; Pledge Allegiance to the Hag; Drink in My Hand; The Hard Way; Jack Daniels; Cold One; That’s Damn Rock & Roll; Homeboy; Dark Side; Devil, Devil; Country Music Jesus; Smoke a Little Smoke; How ‘Bout You; These Boots; Lotta Boot Left to Fill; What I Almost Was; Over When It’s Over; Springsteen; Those I’ve Loved.