All eyes were on Eric Church this past weekend in Nashville -- and not just because he was playing a sold-out show at the Bridgestone Arena on Saturday night (May 5).
Last week at this time, a Rolling Stone interview with Church caused an uproar among country music fans. In the story, he essentially dismissed TV shows as a route to stardom. His remarks angered Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, who have ties to Nashville Star and The Voice, respectively. Church issued an apologetic statement, and Lambert and Shelton presumably moved on with their lives.
Although you never know what will happen at Nashville shows, there were no surprise visits from either of those stars during Church's set. Yet instead of guests, he filled up the place with thousands of dedicated fans, marking his first sold-out arena show in his adopted hometown.
Another reason that all eyes were focused on Church is because he didn't use Jumbotrons on this stop of his Blood Sweat & Beers tour. When was the last time you went to an arena show and didn't watch at least part of it on a big screen? Behind him, he employed a simple canvas backdrop with a digital image of an American flag, a skull with wings or simply his name. Occasionally there were pyrotechnics and unexpected explosives, which were both used sparingly. Other than that, though, Church relied on his arena-ready music.
After the lights dimmed, Church rose from the stage in a cloud of smoke and belted out "Country Music Jesus." From my seat on the side, I could pretty much see the folks on the floor jump into the palm of his hand. And they stayed there through "Guys Like Me" and "Hell on the Heart," which prompted Church to exclaim, "I don't care if I die up here. I'm going to give you everything I got!"
For nearly two hours, he was true to his word. "How 'Bout You" remains as catchy as ever while a line like "She got a rock and I'm getting stoned" suits his country music with a rock 'n' roll influence.
At about 10 p.m., Church decided to talk about his favorite kind of whiskey. (His love of whiskey is a topic that never seems to run dry, especially with his handy visual aids.) He told the audience that it "makes me do things I shouldn't do." If you're thinking this is where the apology comes in, you're wrong. Instead of reiterating he was sorry if anybody misinterpreted his Rolling Stone remarks, he just took a moment to ask everyone to raise hell. And so they did.
Of course, they were ready to tear it up after a remarkable set by Brantley Gilbert, who boasts the presence of a headliner despite being on the national scene for just a few years. He already possesses the fan connection and cool-guy image to take his career to the next level. As an opener for Church, Gilbert proved to be a perfect fit. Blackberry Smoke, a Southern rock-influenced band from Atlanta, set the tone with a rollicking 30-minute set at the beginning of the night.
Like Gilbert, Church slowed things down occasionally for some quiet ballads. While this is typically the portion of a concert where a bathroom break seems like a fine idea, I didn't notice anybody filing out of the place in the middle of either artist's set.
Fans who stayed put for all of Church's show were treated to enjoyable renditions of "Sinners Like Me" and "Love Your Love the Most." With those two songs, you can get a decent idea of Church's perspective -- a rowdy songwriter who takes his personal relationships seriously. When it came time for "Drink in My Hand," everybody still standing was ready to live out the lyrics.
The only part of the show I didn't understand was near the end, when Church was truly hitting his stride. Perched on the corner of the stage, he screamed at the audience to forget everything they'd seen that night because he was "pissed off" and ready to burn the place down. Was it something we said? But instead of ranting some more, he just played the next song and no one spoke of it again.
The most admirable part of his show may be that he dedicated so much of his set to original material. He did sing a few lines of "A Country Boy Can Survive," but other than that, there was no weird musical tribute to Guns N' Roses, John Mellencamp or AC/DC, which happens more often at country shows than you might realize. If you can sell a million records, you might as well play your own songs, right?
Church told the audience he moved to Nashville to be a songwriter, even though one important guy in the music business told him to go back home. Of course, Church ignored that advice, and his tenacity has paid off on breakout hits like "Homeboy" and "Smoke a Little Smoke."
At the end of the night, with "Springsteen" echoing throughout the arena, Church asked his fans to hold out their cell phones. When they did so, the beaming devices immediately outshone the so-called "supermoon" that glowed over Nashville that night. Church seemed overwhelmed at the brightness, even though he was obviously still wearing his sunglasses.
Fortunately, the message of the night was different than you might have expected. Church did thank his fans for their longtime grassroots support, but he didn't tell them the club scene is the only way for an artist to have integrity. Instead, he implored the audience to match his melodies to our memories. And by doing so, he said, we'll create "something we're going to remember for a long, long time."
That's a quote Rolling Stone wouldn't care much about, but his fans definitely do.