BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
No one can ever accuse Eric Church of a shoddy work ethic.
On Thursday, the neo-outlaw country star took a cue from musical idol Bruce Springsteen with a 39-song set that laughed at the three-hour mark (including a 20-minute intermission) and solidified Church’s standing as the grittiest player in modern country.
His epic night began on a pensive note as the hushed sounds of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” rang through the Infinite Energy Center - maybe a little too long for the well-lubricated, packed-to-the-rafters crowd who wanted to get their fists pumping – and Church added another twist at the end of his opening “Mistress Named Music” with the appearance of a local choir onstage.
Clad in his usual uniform of jeans, T-shirt, sunglasses and scruff, Church strutted the ramps of his stage like Springsteen, his guitar slung behind his back, his knuckles punching the air as he worked the crowd into an early froth with “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” (with a healthy assist from backup singer Joanna Cotton).
The stage setup for his “Holdin’ My Own Tour,” which launched Jan. 13 and will play more than 60 dates through May, is ideal for a guy who likes to roam. His six-piece band is scattered throughout the slanted top of the stage, the inside of the platform cut out for a pit of fans to intimately pack. A four-sided screen hangs above the stage, and with four microphone stands set up at the corners, everyone is afforded a close-up view.
It didn’t matter if Church was throttling the neck of his guitar during the rugged stomper “The Outsiders” or injecting a soulful strain into “Carolina” – he brings a feverish energy to the stage regardless of the song or its tempo.
Though Church, 39, joked several times throughout the show about stamina – “I’m gonna try to kill you tonight,” he told the crowd (musically, of course) and then later, “Are you gonna hang with me tonight?” – it was actually refreshing to see him bent over, grinning and trying to catch his breath, at the end of “Knives of New Orleans.”
Even Superman needs to breathe once in a while.
Church made a couple of references to his early days playing at Wild Bill’s, but for several years, he’s been a staple at the arena in Gwinnett ( although in June 2015, he helped pal Kenny Chesney stuff the Georgia Dome ).
His career has steadily ascended, yet he still remains – comfortably – an outsider. He’s a rocker at heart, whether he’s selling a standard country-rock toe-tapper that will live in infamy in pool hall jukeboxes (“Drink in My Hand,” “Smoke a Little Smoke,” “Cold One”) or softening his reedy-yet-expressive voice for a slow burner (“Round Here Buzz,” “Like a Wrecking Ball”).
Church, 39, loves being on stage, and even when he’s applying brooding intensity to a song such as “Talladega,” his cool often melts into an uncontrollable side grin as he sips from a cup marked “Chief.”
He’s established a mutual love affair with his fans, too. Half of them, with their trucker hats and flannel shirts, related heartily to early hit “Guys Like Me,” played under a blanket of flickering strobes during the second set. The other half, the adoring females, dutifully waved their boots (during “These Boots”) and swooned during Church’s ode to long lost romance and The Boss (“Springsteen”), which came with its own homage of “Thunder Road.”
Saying that Church “took the crowd to church” is way too much of a cliché, but it’s inarguable that he used his musical pulpit to preach one heck of a gospel.