NEW YORK CITY — Eric Church has made his multiplatinum rep as modern country’s enfant terrible, and the title track of his latest album, The Outsiders, depicts Church and those who roll with him as iconoclastic fringe-dwellers.
Of course, it’s fair to ask how much of an outsider one can be while headlining New York’s Madison Square Garden, as the country superstar did Friday (Oct. 17), but Church’s choices of Brandy Clark and Dwight Yoakam in the support slots on The Outsiders World Tour say as much about his refusal to toe the Music Row line as his songs do.
Clark, who opened the evening, is a critics’ darling with a rightfully lofty reputation as a razor-sharp songwriter, but all her hits have been for other artists (The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” ). Her own debut album, 12 Stories, released on a small indie label, made plenty of 2013 best-of lists but got a cold shoulder from country radio.
But Church must know the real thing when he hears it because it doesn’t get much more real than the mordant wit at work on Clark tunes like “Stripes” and “Pray to Jesus.” After a set that closed with “Hungover,” the sardonic story of an alcoholic’s partner leaving the drunk in the dust, her gift was obvious to the half of the audience that had filed in by that point.
Yoakam, next up on the bill, has made a long, successful career of not giving a damn about mainstream country trends. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the kind of slickly-produced artists derogatorily termed “hat acts” were all the rage, Yoakam sold even more records than Church does now by showing his rockabilly and Bakersfield honky-tonk roots, making it obvious he’d earned that ever-present hat.
Yoakam’s set featured plenty of his hits from that era, including his covers of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” and, of course, his hero Buck Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield.” Not only does his California cowboy croon sound exactly the same as it did in his early days, even the Elvis-inspired hip-shaking and leg-swiveling the world first saw in his videos over a quarter-century ago are still a part of Yoakam’s show.
He’s always been known for his own tradition-steeped tunes, as well, and Yoakam classics like the bittersweet ballad “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” the roiling rocker “Fast as You” and the plaintive “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” helped make up the meat of his set list.
Yoakam’s much more than an oldies act, though. “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music),” the barnstorming honky-tonk tune he opened with, may be a cover of a ’50s Joe Maphis song, but it’s also on Yoakam’s latest album, 3 Pears. He even gave the audience a sneak peek at his next album, offering up the as-yet-unreleased rocker “Second Hand Heart.” While many of Church’s fans weren’t even born when Yoakam had his first hit, his position of prominence on the tour — in an era when he isn’t exactly ubiquitous on country radio — suggests he holds an equally prominent perch in Church’s estimation.
It might not be apparent in much of Church’s music, but the man who would have all of Madison Square Garden on their feet singing along with “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” before the night was over obviously has a soft spot for the Bakersfield sound, too. Still, at the start of his set, anyone who might have wandered in without eyeing the marquee could have been forgiven for thinking Van Halen was staging another reunion. Amid the pile-driver hard rock riffs of his aforementioned Top 10 single “The Outsiders,” a frenzied flurry of lights beamed around the arena as the drummer and his kit descended from the rafters in a steel cage apparatus.
Screaming guitar licks dovetailed with Dobro picking on the bluesy Southern rock stomp “Creepin’,” another Top 10 tune from Church’s 2011 breakout album, Chief. He cooled things down a tad for two older songs, “Guys Like Me” from his debut, Sinners Like Me, and the title track from the follow-up, Carolina.
By the time he hit the appropriately boozy swagger of the double-platinum Chief single “Drink in My Hand” — a singalong that literally became a howl-along — and followed it with the equally alcohol-friendly outlaw country kicker “Jack Daniels,” fans were reminded that in between the heavy-rocking riffs, Church bears considerably more of an old-school country influence than many of his platinum-selling peers.
Not that he offered anything less than a full embrace of his arena-rock tendencies. After all, what better place to indulge them than Madison Square Garden?
For the sinister-sounding “Devil, Devil” the most curious track from The Outsiders, the production values were downright Iron Maiden-esque. The lengthy spoken-word intro was delivered via a video with a horror-film feel, complete with Church sporting glowing red eyes. Once the band kicked into the song and the video screens no longer commanded the attention, fans were free to notice the gigantic, inflatable demon that had arisen from the floor in the middle of the Garden, with devilish horns and glowing eyes of its own.
Even when Church leaped into earthier territory on Chief’s wry, gospel-flecked “Country Music Jesus,” the show remained larger-than-life, with the drums rising back up toward the roof (presumably as close to heavenward as hydraulics can manage). On the other end of the spectrum, “These Boots” from Sinners Like Me inspired some homegrown theatrics as the fans closest to the stage tossed cowboy boots in Church’s direction. (One wayward boot came perilously close to clocking the singer in the head.)
Church closed his set with an extended homage to the man who made Madison Square Garden his own many times before by delivering bit of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” before seguing into his own anthemic megahit that bears the Boss’ last name.
But upon returning for an encore, rather than go out in a blaze of glory, Church trotted out “Lightning,” an intense, downcast tune about a man on death row. It’s not exactly the sort of thing the partiers who were actively toking along with “Smoke a Little Smoke” a few tunes earlier were probably prepared for, but one couldn’t help recalling that the Hag, to whom Church previously pledged allegiance, has a classic death-row ballad titled “Sing Me Back Home.” Even in the grandest and most urban of surroundings, after all the smoke had settled, Church wasn’t afraid of letting his roots show.