NEW YORK -- Just because the three-year-old club at the far west end of Manhattan's 56th St. is called Terminal 5, that doesn't mean concertgoers arrive expecting to hear the roar of a jet plane taking off. And yet that's pretty close to what they got when Eric Church and his band took the stage as the special guests for headliner Miranda Lambert during the Wednesday night (Sept. 29) kickoff of this year's CMT on Tour.
Following a brief batch of tunes from singer-songwriter Josh Kelley -- whose latest single, "Georgia Clay," finds him following in the country footsteps of his brother Charles from Lady Antebellum -- Church took the stage in ball cap, shades and faded, frayed jeans for some raw, rowdy country-rock with the emphasis squarely on rock.
Church's tattooed, tough-looking band unleashed walloping, AC/DC-worthy riffs with an intensity and volume level more commonly associated with stadium-rock than Outlaw country, but when Church roared out his first-ever hit, 2006's "How 'Bout You," amid fuzzed-out banjo picking, wailing twin-guitar leads and smoke-machine eruptions, it was plain the old Willie-and-Waylon torch had been picked up and acetylene-combusted into a full-on firestorm by a new breed of Nashville maverick, the kind whose larger-than-life stage moves are more WWE than Grand Ole Opry.
And that set the mood for the headlining maverick.
Even if Lambert's latest album wasn't titled Revolution, that still would have been a fitting name for the latest CMT on Tour, seeing as how both Lambert and Church are independent-minded artists at the leading edge of the modern-day Outlaw sound, hellbent on doing whatever it takes to shake the complacency out of mainstream country. The tour takes Lambert, Church and Kelley across the nation and will hit its fair share of arenas along the way, but Wednesday's show found them unveiling the whole shebang with a hot, sweaty blowout at the 3,000-capacity New York City venue best known for hosting indie rock shows.
As the lights dimmed before Lambert's set, the sound system began pounding out -- appropriately enough -- Steve Earle's "The Revolution Starts Now," and then the 26-year-old Texas firebrand appeared in a short, sequined, black dress and dangerous-looking stiletto heels. In stark contrast to Church's maximalist setup and in-your-face presence, Lambert and her all-Texan band played on a bare stage, giving off an easygoing vibe that didn't disguise their obvious enthusiasm and energy a bit.
The first chunk of the set was a virtual greatest-hits presentation as Lambert trotted out five hit singles in a row, starting with her latest, "Only Prettier," and moving through "Kerosene," "Famous in a Small Town," "Dead Flowers" and "More Like Her." With that much firepower expended so early on, you had to wonder how she could maintain the same level of intensity for the rest of the night.
Lambert quickly laid any such reservations to rest, reaching deep into her emotional core to deliver passion-packed versions of Revolution's "Airstream Song" and "New Strings" before some blistering, bluesy guitar licks led into a barnstorming cover of "Long White Cadillac," the Blasters' rockabilly-fueled rave-up that Dwight Yoakam later took to the country chart.
Then Lambert let the crowd in on a little personal history.
"I grew up in East Texas, singing in the church choir," she said, "When I was 17, I joined a country music band. ... It worked out pretty well, I guess."
After going on to recount her discovery of "something called Bacardi" and shouting out to her "boy from Oklahoma" -- fiancé Blake Shelton -- Lambert continued, "I like to party. I like to sit around a campfire and have a beer. It says in the Bible that Jesus drinks wine, so I know for a fact that he will not pass judgment on me for this song." With that, she launched into "Heart Like Mine," her tune about a girl who "ain't the kind you take home to mama."
Other than a plaintive version of her heart-tugging No. 1 hit, "The House That Built Me," the last leg of Lambert's set grew increasingly more raw and raucous as it went along. She introduced her scrappy, Neil Young-esque version of Fred Eaglesmith's "Time to Get a Gun" by shouting, "I know this is New York City, but are there any rednecks in the house? As a longtime member of the NRA, I think it's time to get a gun!"
Declaring, "We're going old school," Lambert ripped into a house-rocking take on Rick Derringer's '70s hit "Rock 'n' Roll Hoochie Koo." Fiery six-string and steel guitar solos flew through the air as the band charged through "Sin for a Sin," "White Liar" and an almost punky take on John Prine's "That's the Way the World Goes 'Round." Lambert closed the set by identifying herself to the crowd as a "beer drinking, hell-raising, shotgun-shooting, chicken steak-frying redneck chick" before plowing into her hard-driving "song about justice" -- "Gunpowder & Lead."
Coming back for an encore, she thanked the sardine-packed audience for "coming to the beginning of the revolution" and led into Merle Haggard's "Misery and Gin" by joking, "After Blake and I get married and divorced, I'm gonna marry Merle Haggard."
If Haggard heard the way Lambert's tough-gal persona opened up just then and allowed for the most undeniably emotive moment of the entire evening, he just might have taken her up on the offer.