Eric Church Sends a Message as Rodeo Opener
Photos courtesy of Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo

Eric Church Sends a Message as Rodeo Opener

Eric Church NRG Stadium March 3, 2015

Asking Eric Church to open the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo's 2015 season definitely sent a message. The 37-year-old singer is what passes for an outlaw in country music these days, with more depth and a harder edge to his music than many of his peers. Yet in other ways, he's as mainstream as they come, and the chip on his shoulder about measuring up to icons like Hank Jr. and Merle Haggard only highlights how far he has to go. That much was obvious after "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag."

But for grownup fans looking to escape the teenybopper crowd that's likely to submerge later shows like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan -- not to mention Ariana Grande and Fall Out Boy -- Church made one of the better options of the season, if not the best of the lot. Plus, the members of his band would look right at home most weekend nights at Houston's Continental Club, which is never a bad thing to see on that big revolving stage.

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Making his RodeoHouston debut Tuesday night, Church didn't quite whip the crowd into a J.J. Watt-size frenzy, but he didn't do anything to make Waylon roll over in his grave, either. He had some trouble with momentum, no doubt because his appearance amounted to a dress rehearsal for whatever tweaks the NRG sound crew has given their equipment this year; the engineers took until almost 9:20 to get everything set up.

But Church's band actually turned out to be an excellent choice to not only work any bugs out of the sound system, but to gauge how much it could handle. For starters, they probably beat ZZ Top's rodeo record for most amps onstage at the same time (and even in front of the stage), a truly impressive display of hardware. Their sound was more than a match for the venue, rough around the edges but soft in the middle (the acoustic guitars were particularly crisp), built from the ground up by the drummer's stadium-rock beats and emitting a sinister fog of fuzz-clouded guitars to swarm around the arena.

The band was burning some serious diesel long before they tacked a bit of Black Sabbath onto the end of "Smoke a Little Smoke." Too bad the effect was like driving a monster truck through a school zone; what's the point of all that horsepower if you're going to ride the clutch the whole trip?

It felt like Church was doing the best he could under the conditions, which called for a family-friendly show when most of his repertoire is after-hours and adults-only. He said his two-week-old back at home was responsible for his lack of responsibility for what came out of his mouth, then proceeded to drop zero f-bombs the rest of the night. About the most risque thing he said was citing his song "Wrecking Ball" as the genesis of said two-week-old.

Furthermore, the centerpiece songs from latest album The Outsiders, "Give Me Back My Hometown" and "Talladega," were fairly obviously meant to be played in front of big screens showing old home movies and black-and-white footage of dried-up small towns; something to that effect. Tuesday, he was just a guy on a stage that was very far away, mitigating their cinematic impact.

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Eric Church Sends a Message as Rodeo Opener

But Church's bigger issue might have been sequencing. Opening with "Creepin'," which builds to a raging throb like gradually coming to only to face down a wicked hangover, was brilliant. But why save "These Boots," an early cut from 2006's Sinners Like Me that makes a better Haggard pastiche than "Pledge Allegiance," until almost the end, well after the set had climaxed with "Homeboy" and "Smoke a Little Smoke" but where something with more kick would have made a perfect coup de grace?

Who knows? He almost had to end with "Springsteen," his simmering 2012 single that finally sold radio programmers on Church for good, but it really would have worked better as the third or fourth song, something that could ramp up into "Drink In My Hand," which swayed like the Black Crowes' "Jealous Again" two and a half sheets to the wind later. Then he slowed it down with the aforementioned "Wrecking Ball," which despite its purplish lyrics came off as pretty tame live.

But at least Church is taking chances, mixing and matching the different elements of his persona to suit his surroundings. He had an excellent set Tuesday, and a killer band. It was just out of order, and somewhat muzzled. But to see at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, it was still pretty damn cool.

Personal Bias: Fan of Church, just not particularly of "Springsteen." Listened to the actual Springsteen on the way home, though.

Overheard In the Crowd: How YOU doin'?!" -- someone near me was obviously a big fan of Friends.

The Crowd: Not even close to Spring Break levels of crazy, but admirably on their way. (Announced attendance: 57,338.)

Random Notebook Dump: Church gave a shout-out to the two local venues he passed through on his pre-arena days, Mo's Place and the Firehouse Saloon. Bet those shows were really something.

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