Yes, Eric Church has upped his game. He's evolved. He's taken things to the proverbial next level. On his new album The Outsiders, he has made it very obvious that this Eric Church is not the same man he was three studio albums ago.
But his live show? It's the same as it ever was -- a seamless romp through a rowdy set list his fans are always eager to embrace. And he's kept it that way for almost eight years.
When I caught up with Church before he took the stage at Joe's Bar in Chicago on Thursday night (Feb. 13), he said that even though he'd only played the new music live twice before -- earlier that night in Indiana and Ohio as part of his release-week fan appreciation journey -- his approach was still the same.
"The show's gotten bigger," he told me. "The crowds have gotten bigger. But no matter how big it is, I still think you have to try to keep it like it's gonna be tonight. The bigger the room, the smaller it should feel. That's how people attach to it. And that's what we try to do. Anywhere we play."
While Church's earlier shows on Thursday had been just him and his guitar, he had his full band with him for the Chicago show. They took the stage at 11:30 p.m., and played for well over an hour. The set was made up of about half old stuff and half brand new stuff.
"This is the first time we've played these new ones. I mean, we made the record, but this will be the first time we play them live," Church said before opening the show with the album's title track. "In a lot of ways, this will be like the studio, like an exploration process. We're just gonna go out there and see what happens."
What happened was classic Church -- with him in his Ray-Bans, singing everything from his new single "Give Me Back My Hometown" to "These Boots" and "Livin' Part of Life" from his 2006 debut album Sinners Like Me. And with fans packed in tight, right up against the stage, it sounded like a band of 1,000 background singers.
So, mission accomplished. Church really did make the room feel small.