Eric Church / Maren Morris. Red Rocks. 08.09.16
It would be easy to write Eric Church off as just another cookie-cutter country star manufactured and produced in Nashville, Tennessee for your listening and viewing pleasure. Slap on a pair of designer boots and blue jeans, trim and sculpt the hair and scruff, hand him a guitar and a lyric sheet filled with references to small towns, trucks, girls, and brand-name whiskey, and watch the fans flock to sold-out show after sold-out show. Then come up with a catchy name for those the fans. The Church Choir should do it, that’s perfect! Now make a fortune pushing VIP passes and meet-and-greet opportunities down their throats. Oh, and have him wear Ray-Ban sunglasses during every performance too — you know, just to add a little mystique to the package.
If Eric Church weren’t such a talented artist, it would be easy to write him off as one of those “pretty boys actin’ tough” he so eloquently pisses on during “Lotta Boot Left to Fill”.
Eric Church is the real deal though. He may not do it the way Waylon or Hank done it before him (staging multiple rigs around Red Rocks, each with his face plastered 20 feet tall, was some popstar-sized ego shit), but standing on that stage solo, performing a primarily acoustic set for 9,000+ people, with nothing more than his words, his voice, and his guitar, also proved there is more than just hot air inflating that ego. Eric Church is a rare breed; he is a serious songwriter who finds favor among the staunchest critics, but he is also welcomed with open arms to backstage parties at the CMAs…and he does it all while receiving heavy rotation on radio stations across the country.
Eric Church’s influences range from George Strait to Bruce Springsteen to Jeff Tweedy. He doesn’t just wear those influences on his sleeve either; he tattoos that shit into every song. He namedrops every one of those bastards, sometimes multiple times; and in the case of The Boss, he just names the damn song after him. There is nothing subtle about Eric Church. His lyrical content isn’t always as deep as he may think it is either, and while his ‘clever’ wordplay is refreshing at times (“Record Year”), it can also be unforgivably embarrassing (“Homeboy”), but everything Eric Church writes is bluntly honest. His references to small towns, trucks, girls, and brand-name whiskey are not a product of some Nashville songwriting machine; his voice is clearly that of a living breathing person. Eric Church (the actual person behind those dark sunglasses) is the common thread holding all of his songs together. They are all written from the point of view of a single man. And that was the man who was on display at Red Rocks on Tuesday night.
The torrential rain had passed and Maren Morris had warmed the night with a red hot performance consisting of (almost) her entire debut album, Hero. Scalpers had been dealt with, Dales and Jack Daniels had been consumed by the gallon, and the crowd was growing restless. Anticipation weighed heavy as old-school flyers (black-and-white paper advertising shows at the Ryman, Bowery Ballroom, etc.) flew across the side screen. The flyers took us through the years in which Church climbed from dive bars to arenas. Then Clutch’s “Electric Worry” blasted over the PA, while a clock counted down the seconds until “Eric Church at Red Rocks”. Then the man himself appeared on the screen to announce the 2017 “Holdin’ My Own Tour”; two sets each night, in 60 different cities, with the Church Choir getting preferential presale opportunities. Then finally, at 9:40pm, the man himself appeared on stage to open things up with “Mistress Named Music”.
Not being a fan of most mainstream country artists these days, I was absolutely floored when he proceeded to perform without the cover of a band. “Mistress” segued into Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock”, which led into Loggins and Messina’s “Danny’s Song” with some Little Feat and Billy Joel thrown in. Then he tackled a verse from George Strait’s “Troubadour”, before wrapping the whole thing back around with “not quite the buzz I used to tie on at the Grizzly Rose.” The mere mention of that local honky tonk sent the Colorado Choir into a frenzy as Eric Church just continued on, like some guy strumming a guitar in the corner of the bar.
A simple wooden backdrop stood behind a few scattered instruments. A skull, a few decorations, and some candles gave the impression of an old church, or barn, or maybe both. Friends and family members (including his two young sons) could be seen in the background, but for the time being, Church was alone at the front of the stage. “Mr. Misunderstood” was performed completely acoustic, with nothing to augment his voice expect for simple guitar strings and the echo of the crowd during the final verse (“I understand”). We were 5th row center, so I can’t speak to how it translated in the upper sections, but those of us in front were under a spell that would not be broken until the show ended sometime around midnight.
“Let me tell you, this may be more for me than for you, but this is the most amazing night I’ve had on a stage. I’ve reviewed the history of this place and the set will reflect that history.”
Being so close to the stage in such an iconic, intimate venue, along with the fact that his family was in attendance for the acoustic, off-the-cuff show, made for an extremely personal experience. The medley of “Smoke a Little Smoke” and “Drink in My Hand” (where he forgot the lyrics and sang “what’s the next friggin’ line in this song” instead) had a real ‘’songs around the campfire’ vibe to it. Then a couple guitarists and a guy on keys came out for “Record Year”, before we were warned “shit’s about to get real,” when Joanne was introduced to fill in for Susan Tedeschi on “Mixed Drinks About Feelings”. With a voice straight out of old Pink Floyd records, Joanne stuck around, to everyone’s pleasure, for “Kill A Word” (“I’ve never had a song that is more timely”), before leaving Church alone with his instrument and red Solo cup.
“The worst thing about me is planning. I’m just running through songs in my head. I’ll figure something out.”
Again, as if it were just another night singing songs with old friends, Eric Church took advantage of his surroundings by performing whatever came to mind, without a structured setlist or any other such limitations. He pledged his allegiance to Merle Haggard; he did his best to summon a country music savior; and he tried to teach the local homeboy a lesson. An ass-kicking by Jack Daniels was followed by a rowdy night of wrecked sex, and then we were introduced to the children who inevitably followed.
“I didn’t plan it, but I was just thinking back on the last three songs. They went Jack Daniels, Like a Wrecking Ball, and then Three Year Old. Shit, that’s how it happened! Art imitates life.”
The lightning bolts striking down from the sky in the distance went head-to-head with the electricity pulsating through the funky, full-band performance of “Cold One” and “Chattanooga Lucy”, before Church brought things down a notch while reflecting back on his prior visit to Red Rocks. He had once stood on the stage, looking up at the monoliths “lit like they are right now,” while Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” flowed through his Beats headphones. It was a moment he would never forget — one he would replicate with his own rendition of that classic song. Having seen “Hallelujah” covered countless times (as well as seeing Leonard perform it in Phoenix), I have to say Tuesday night’s was one of the best.
“We’ve played Denver many times, but the first time was in 2007 at the Grizzly Rose…it was first time someone took their boot off and held it up.”
With last call a distant memory, the performance showed no sign of slowing down. Savoring the last remnants of drinks in hand, the audience continued to show their love and support by singing along with songs about New Orleans, “Talladega”, and the theft of one’s own hometown. And when it came time to talk about those boots that are always walkin’ away, hundreds of men and women bent down, removed their footwear, and thrust that leather into the air as an act of solidarity; an act which was born just a few miles down the road.
The set wrapped up with the title song for his upcoming tour, “Holdin’ My Own”, before he quickly returned for a single song encore. Those who were waiting for “Springsteen” or “Like Jesus Does” were to be disappointed, but “Those I’ve Loved” was as fitting a closer as there has ever been. Once again by himself, with just a single light reflecting off those signature aviator lenses, he words came across as honest to goodness truth.
“It was never about trying to be some big star
For me it’s always been about these songs
You see they’re my best friends
They’re the life I live”
Watching the man perform that song, it was obvious he meant every word. Not many mainstream country stars would be comfortable in a solo, acoustic setting these days, because let’s face it, most of them just don’t have a chops to do so. You have to own a song to be able to perform it with no distractions. You have to have lived it. Eric Church owns his songs. He has lived them. And he’s got the voice to tell you so.
Time might prove me wrong, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced Eric Church will not go down as the Waylon Jennings or George Jones of his generation. His contemporary nature and style won’t allow for that. If anything, Eric Church is more a throwback to the music of the early 90’s — back when country and pop started to merge, but songwriting was still a respected craft. Back when the songs were more than just glorified beer commercials and the lyrics were more than a game of Redneck Madlibs. Eric Church is not a product of the bastardized Nashville machine that exists today, but he isn’t afraid of using that machine to further his career and spread his message. He might not be the next Jennings or Jones, but from what I witnessed on Tuesday night, I think it’s very possible he could be the next Brooks, Black, or Jackson.
Drunk Girls Don’t Cry
How It’s Done
I Wish I Was
I Could Use a Love Song
Mistress Named Music / Like a Rock / Danny’s Song / Willin’ / Piano Man / Troubadour / Mistress Named Music
Smoke A Little Smoke / Drink In My Hand
Mixed Drinks About Feelings
Kill A Word
Pledge Allegiance to the Hag
Country Music Jesus
Homeboy / Creepin’ / Dark Side
Livin’ Part of Life
Like a Wrecking Ball
Three Year Old
Knives of New Orleans
Give Me Back My Hometown
Holdin’ My Own
Those I’ve Loved