ERIC CHURCH SINGS THE SOUNDTRACK TO A DC TUESDAY NIGHT

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     Funny how a melody sounds like a memory…..” well it certainly does now after watching Eric Church perform in Washington DC for the first time Tuesday night at the Verizon Center. He made a point to tell the crowd that he’d played the area’s iconic 9:30 Club in the early years of his career, but hadn’t played anywhere else in DC. Tuesday night concerts aren’t the norm in country music and it’s not often you’ll find cowboy boots on the streets of the nation’s capitol. Eric put fans on notice at the start of the show that this being a Tuesday night was no excuse not to get a little crazy with him, and they obliged. They could have put anyone on the stage to open for Eric Church and it wouldn’t have mattered. No one could have upstaged the Chief on this night. There was only one man this crowd was waiting for and his entrance to the stage seemed appropriate for the playing of a song this town is familiar with, “Hail to the Chief.”

     Arriving at the venue very early in the afternoon, I stumbled upon one of Eric’s trucks parked along a side street. Just one. It seemed fitting not to find a fleet of them. The set up for Eric’s stage show is as unassuming as he is. Little happens set-up wise between the opening act and Eric taking the stage. Once the opener’s equipment is cleared, a simple guitar rack appears at the back of the stage and lights ring the center circle. That’s it. Everything else was already in place and very inconspicuous. When Eric took the stage, he was alone – t-shirt, jeans, ball cap, aviators, guitar. This is no label-conjured image. THIS is Eric Church. What a perfect way to open, “The Outsiders,” in a town full of suits. His band members took the stage and the drum kit lowered from the ceiling. When the music erupted and the lights flared, it was like being part of an underground event in a secret club where the best garage band on the planet was about to rock your world. No authority. No rules. “Shot outta hell like a bullet from a gun, A flip of a switch, A thief on the run”…we were about to go “Creepin’!”

     We were only a few songs into the set when Eric addressed the crowd for the first time. He said he’d played every bar, everywhere, probably 5000 times. Pointing to the stage, he recognized the fact that he CHURCH, ERIC 930 CLUB POSTERwouldn’t be standing there without the fans who’ve listened to his music and come out to see him play. It was a message that seemed to permeate the show. Images from past shows flashed across the video screens prior to the start of his set. He would reference his past appearance at the 9:30 Club often throughout the evening. As it turns out, that show on February 16, 2010, was also on a Tuesday night. The set he played, largely without a list, was a look back at that performance and the music he was touring with at the time. By night’s end, we would hear the full spectrum of Eric’s career from his debut album, Sinners Like Me, to his latest Grammy-nominated, groundbreaking release, The Outsiders.

     Eric Church has reached that point in his career where he is largely a household name. His music is familiar to many. His live performances are highly anticipated, yet never predictable. He works to make each show unique, “like freezing a moment in time,” that no one else will experience at their live show. Eric takes three elements and gets the most he can out of them – himself, his guitar, and his band – Driver Williams (guitar), Jeff Cease (guitar), Lee Hendricks (bass), Jeff Hyde (guitar, banjo, mandolin), and Craig Wright (drums). This performance does not happen without teamwork, nor without the leadership Eric provides. He can play acoustic and hold his own, but fire up the band and it’s a pyrotechnical experience of musicianship. Using the stage design to project image and sound, you could see, feel, and hear the energy in each song as it connected the players, bouncing from one to the other. The lighting, by far the best I’ve seen, highlighted each moment of intense musical fusion between player and instrument. When these electric moments happened, Eric was as excited about it as we were. He would often stand alongside the player and watch, calling out the his band member’s name and tipping his hat in admiration. On no other stage have I seen that happen. This was a band in every sense of the word, clearly having fun jamming together.

     Being in the crowd that night was like riding a musical wave. Each song brought howls of recognition from these well-educated in Eric Church music fans. “Jack Daniels” was no stranger to this group. Small bottles of JD were thrown onto the stage (and one large empty one), inviting Eric to let Jack Daniels kick his ass again on this night. He did open one and empty its contents in a much appreciated effort. “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” was a throwback to his 9:30 Club days but the crowd seemed to have no trouble with these lyrics. “Talladega” got a huge reaction as one of the most highly anticipated songs of the night, followed by another……. “Drink In My Hand.” Prior to starting this song, Eric said it’s often used as a crowd gauge to see just what a crazy bunch he may have on hand that night and which songs will resonate. He likes running the show outside a set format saying, “When you don’t have a set list, you can play whatever the hell you want.” It’s an attitude his fans love.

     At every show, Eric sends someone up into the cheap seats to find some of his most loyal fans who’ve been following him since the beginning. One lucky fan gets to have some input on the night’s playlist. He gave the gentleman a list of songs and told him to choose one. Like a musical game of Russian roulette, how far back will he go and will the band remember how to play the song? This guy went back to the first song on the first album from 2006, “Before She Does.” Gathering the band to ensure they would all start in the same key and saying to the crowd, “This oughta be interesting,” it was a perfect rendition. No surprise with this accomplished band. Staying in that era, Eric called for “Livin’ Part of Life” to follow it. Switching gears, we were back listening to three favorites from The Outsiders. “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” brought a female singer to the stage to add to the vocal power this one demands. The attitude has to come from the lyrics and the rock music backing them up for this to be the in your face anthem it was meant to be. By the time they finished with this one, you would swear you’d just gotten the rock hand symbol tattooed on your arm. Volume and attitude aplenty!

     “Give Me Back My Hometown” was in the unenviable position of following that. If you thought there would be a lull in the energy of the show after that last display, you’ve never seen Eric Church live. The volume and delivery may change, but the muscle doesn’t. Eric has the ability to force emotion even at the lowest levels of the sound gauge. “Dark Side” creates the perfect stage for this ability. First describing the motivation to write it, he sings it from the shadows, using his voice like a loaded gun ready to defend his child. Channeling that fighting spirit, he gathered himself for the fight with the devil he was about to have. The prelude to “Devil, Devil” comes from Eric’s pre-recorded voice and the scenes on the video screens overhead. It sets the scene for the song and the enormous inflated devil figure that appears at the back of the arena. It rotates throughout the song and changes colors as it does, leaving little to the imagination as to who this devil is. The belt it wears has an oval buckle bearing the name ‘Nashville.’ Deflating like he’s just performed an exorcism, he calls on a higher power to restore the peace. “We need a Country Music Jesus to come and save us all.”

     Eric is never out of touch with his audience, but on “These Boots,” he gives a little something extra. Calling for a show of boots, he selected three from the crowd and they were thrown onto the stage (almost). He held them aloft during the song and signed each one before returning them airmail. Talk about freezing a moment in time through the magic of an indelible Sharpie! Early in the show, someone had tossed a sign up onto the stage and Eric laid it aside. 21 songs into the set, he showed it to us. It asked if he would please play a song about Curtis Loew. Recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1974, this was going back a ways. Accepting the challenge, almost relishing it, he gathered his band and strategized a key of attack. There would be no tripping up this band. They owned it. And the crowd goes wild!

CHURCH, ERIC AT VERIZON

Photo courtesy of Kira Mohler.

     The night would finish with a couple of songs that needed varying degrees of swagger and one that set Eric’s career in motion. “Keep On” is the ultimate put up or shut up tough guy song. “Like a Wrecking Ball,” his latest single, calls for a different kind of muscle and a far different threat. “Springsteen” would wrap up the night. He started this one with a slowed down intro of the boss’ “Dancing In The Dark.” What better way for the chief to sing about the boss? What this song describes is exactly what Eric wants to leave his fans with every time they come to see him play. Every concert should be a memory that no one else has. He talked about being 16 when he went to a concert, had that feeling, and picked up his first guitar. The excitement he felt is something you can still see in him during his live show. It was a feeling he left all of us with. After all of the shows he’s played over the years, it says a lot about the man who still shows up excited to be here on a Tuesday night. The relationship he has with his band is a big part of that. These guys don’t just show up to collect a paycheck. They genuinely enjoy playing together and when everyone is having this much fun, it’s always going to be a great show. We like to ‘hail’ things around here – the Redskins, the Chief. Hail to Eric Church? Sounds like a melody and a memory from a DC Tuesday night.

Visit Eric’s website for tour information: http://ericchurch.com/

CHURCH, ERIC - THE OUTSIDERS

The Outsiders is available through iTunes: HERE

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Bev Miskus

Blogger of all things music related in Nashville and beyond.

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