Eric Church Goes the Distance at Minneapolis Concert

Delivers Three-Hour, 37-Song Set During Holdin’ My Own Tour

MINNEAPOLIS — George Strait’s Vegas concerts have been featuring 33 or 34 songs. Garth Brooks typically delivers 24 to 29 tunes per show. Eric Church trumps them with 37.

That’s right — 37! Chief has recorded only 57 songs on his five albums. By contrast, King George has scored 45 No. 1 hits, and GarthGantuan has sold a whopping 135 million albums.

Church always does things his way. His three-hour, 37-song, no-opening-act marathon Friday night (Jan. 20) at sold-out Target Center in Minneapolis featured every selection from his latest Mr. Misunderstood album, eight tunes each from Chief and Sinners Like Me, six from The Outsiders and five from Carolina.

At this fifth concert of his Holdin’ My Own Tour, Church promised that every night of the tour would have a different set list. And, of course, every night would be a two-set endurance test.

“I’ll try to kill you, or you try to kill me,” he challenged his fans — the Church Choir, 19,000 strong Friday night — early into the concert. “We’ll see who does it.”

No wonder he started the second set with “Ain’t Killed Me Yet,” with its power chords ringing throughout the NBA arena.

The evening commenced with a single white spotlight focused on a lonely microphone stand with a recording of the late pop hero Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” playing over the speakers. That served notice that Church was in session.

Chief hit the stage by himself with an acoustic guitar, kicking off “Mistress Named Music.” After a verse and chorus, Church’s band suddenly appeared at the back of the stage. Before the song was over, white-robed members of Minneapolis’ Washburn High School choir joined in.

Church then put the pedal to the floor, tearing through “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” the noisy, snarling “The Outsiders” and the roaring, slashing “Knives of New Orleans.”

Throughout the long evening, Church worked his way around the spare, backdrop-free stage with its semi-circular runway (with fans in the pit). There were microphone stands at various spots on the stage, so fans on the sides and behind the stage got up-close attention.

A four-sided video screen was suspended over the stage, offering tight shots of those aviator shades and that crooked Church smile. All the video footage was in black and white — except during the encore number “Holdin’ My Own,” which offered full-color close-ups of Church. Similarly, the lighting scheme during most of the concert was white, though in the second act there were splashes of red, green, blue and even orange at times.

The color-conscious superstar dressed in a plain black T-shirt, blue jeans and gray cowboy boots, with those familiar sunglasses and “Chief” stamped on his guitar strap and on the grande mug from which he sipped. The bottle from which he chugged was labeled “Jack Daniel’s” because he broke it out in the middle of the second set when he sang “Jack Daniel’s,” a 2011 album track from Chief, to the delight of the Church Choir.

Whether official Church Choir members or just congregants, the fans stood all night long (save for the 20-minute intermission for a beer and bathroom run) and responded vociferously. It didn’t matter if it was ballads with big drums (“Carolina,” “Round Here Buzz”) or party pieces (“Drink in My Hand,” “Smoke a Little Smoke,” “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag”), the reception was thunderous.

But perhaps the most over-the-top reaction was for the hits from Mr. Misunderstood, namely the title cut and “Record Year.” Two other selections from that album, the funky “Chattanooga Lucy” and the cry-in-your-shot-glass “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” were big winners in concert, as well, thanks partly to the contributions of backup singer Joanna Cotten, who was never introduced by name.

The Church Choir helped out on vocals a few times, especially on “Springsteen,” which the singer introduced as being a song that combines melody and memory.

He didn’t talk a whole lot during the performance but just enough to seem friendly and informative. He did offer short sermons about his early Twin Cities appearances at the Cabooze bar and State Theatre and about his two young sons, before singing about lessons learned in “Three Year Old.”

Church seemed less sure of himself in what he called the “audible” portion of the second set. Apparently, the band didn’t know what he was going to play. Looking down at the lyrics, he seemed a bit tentative on “Hungover and Hard Up” but found his footing on the ensuing “Young and Wild” and “Lightning.”

Proving that he likes to mix things up, Church dusted off “Two Pink Lines” from his 2006 debut album, reimagined as sort of a spare riff rocker.

The home stretch found Chief in his comfort zone, with “These Boots,” “Springsteen” and the encores of the island-lite “Holdin’ My Own” and “Like Jesus Does,” rendered solo on electric guitar.

At song’s end, the elated but spent Church, who had hit the stage more than three hours earlier, triumphantly waved his arms in the air. And the cheering Church-goers seemed just as exhilarated and exhausted.

Jon Bream is the longtime music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of four music books, including Dylan: Disc by Disc.