The stage at Target Center was completely barren of instruments and equipment on Tuesday night save for two guitars in stands. Then Eric Church walked out, guitar strapped on. Next, one by one, his band members strolled onstage, instruments in hand, and suddenly, from the video-screen cube high above the stage, the drummer and his entire kit descended on to the stage.
Tommy Lee and Motley Crue, you got nothing on Eric Church and his crew.
“Haters gonna hate,” Church barked as he tore into “The Outsiders,” the title track of the bestselling album in country music in 2014.
Church also may be country’s most compelling live act of the moment — at least until the newly un-retired Garth Brooks rolls into town for a multi-night stand.
Like Brooks, Church has spent considerable time worshiping at the House of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He brings the bash, the grit, and most of all, the menace. With a seemingly permanent snarl on his face, he attacked his songs with a clenched-fist intensity — even the ballads. To be sure, at times during the two-hour performance, it seemed like faux bravado from this red-faced, fist-waving, chest beating North Carolinian. He’s no Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or James Hetfield of Metallica. He doesn’t scare the crap out of you.
Heck, when Church, 37, warned against messing with his wife or his about to turn 3-year-old son, he did it in a haunting ballad, “Dark Side.” Maybe that’s because this new-breed country superstar understands how to mix art, edginess and surprises into a sound that’s far from mainstream Nashville.
The crowd-pleasing hit “Cold One,” was a ballad with booming drums. “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” featured a cocaine lyric, dub bass, pounding drums and a female backup singer going toe to toe with Church a la Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Country Music Jesus” sounded like Merle Haggard-meets-Alabama in a bad-ass rock ‘n’ roll band (during which the drummer’s riser rose high above the rest of the band). Kid Rock would have loved to have called that tune his own. Or Hank Williams Jr.
But Church is really more like the Boss than like Bocephus. It’s no coincidence that Church’s biggest hit was “Springsteen.” In concert, Eric shares certain qualities with Bruce, chiefly passion, intensity and ambition.
Church also borrows a few ideas from the Boss, including a song title “Wrecking Ball,” though this ballad was a love song not a social commentary. And the recent country chart-topper “Give Me Back My Hometown” sounded like a Springsteen tune performed by Keith Urban. Yes, Church can sing tenor.
He may be sentimental (witness the wistful “Springsteen” about reflecting back to a July Saturday night years ago and “These Boots,” during which he trotted around with a fan’s cowboy boots before autographing them at song’s end) but he’s no choir boy. As the popular souvenir T-shirts declared: “I Drink, I Smoke, I Go to Eric [bleepin] Church.”
Yes, these 19,000 Churchgoers came to party to the rollicking singalong “Drink in My Hand,” the growling “Smoke a Little Smoke” and the mesmerizingly swampy “I’m Getting Stoned.” It was almost as if Church threw down the gauntlet and challenged: “Party on, Garth!”
A tip of the ball cap to Church for enlisting a country maverick of a different generation, the still-terrific Dwight Yoakam, as opening act. At night’s end, Church confessed: “I had a suspicion that this would be a religious experience for you and me.” Yes, two high priests of Nashville outsiders made it so. Amen to that.