Friday Night: Eric Church at Toyota Center

Eric Church Toyota Center September 24, 2012

Eric Church is the most curious country artist to come along in a while. He says he sips Jack Daniel's in concert and (despite my assumption) talks it up in his shows without taking a dime from the Tennessee distiller, which is a sight different from Toby Keith making his show into a two-hour spot for Ford trucks. This spring Church got into hot water for some, er, critical comments he made to Rolling Stone about singing shows like Nashville Star and The Voice, which still weren't as good as when he called many of his fellow artists at Lollapalooza 2009 "pussy."

But Church also seems to understand an old playground principle, namely don't pick a fight you can't win. Lately, since his moody single "Springsteen" became one of this year's biggest country hits, helping his third album Chief go platinum and land a truckload of CMA nominations, he's been winning.

Friday, Church came to Toyota Center as headliner of the "Blood, Sweat & Beers" tour with two Moores: Intimidatingly wholesome second-amendment defender Justin -- who opened with "Guns" and had NRA and Cabela's logos on his backdrop banner -- and Kip, who was roaring into his hit "Something About a Truck" about the time I arrived. It wasn't a high-school football game under the lights with processed-cheese nachos and a Coke in a paper cup, but it would do.

No doubt because of Texas' own abundance of high-spirited country artists who love nothing more than to point out how much of what is coming out of Nashville these days sucks (and offer plenty of alternatives to prove their case), Church has had some difficulty "cracking" the Texas market. Toyota Center already had one-quarter of the arena's seats blacked out and the rest was bout half full, for a grand total of maybe 7,000 people.

Church also has a little work to do in connecting with the people in the rafters. His low-brimmed ballcap and mirror shades can't help with that, however much it's part of his signature look. When Church announced he was going to "strip it down" and shooed off his band to hold court with only an acoustic guitar -- commencing with a cover of Sammy Johns' "Chevy Van" that made me LOL -- I glanced behind me, and a full 75 percent of the people back there were preoccupied with their phones.

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But, really, that's their fault. Church put on a high-energy, hard-rockin' show, coming off as sincere and amiable and a little prickly when he vowed to "burn this son of a bitch down." He paused just enough between good-time anthems like "Drink In My Hand" and "Guys Like Me" to honor both his roots and his outlaw heroes, and every so often touched a real nerve.

In "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," loaded with references to bargain bins, one-hit wonders and shows like The Voice, Church admits even he's not up to the level of Waylon Jennings (yet), though indirectly he's saying he's a lot closer than his peers. He is.

Another cue he took from Waylon -- remember, one of Buddy Holly's Crickets at one point -- was to load up his country with as much rock and roll as he could, and Church's heavily tattooed band certainly delivered on that promise Friday. I doubt Bocephus would spit tobacco at their cover of "A Country Boy Can Survive."

He can turn a phrase, too. In the uptempo shuffle "Keep On," he catches a girl checking him out and says, "where'd you get the cowboy on your arm, where you want me to drop him off?" "I'm Gettin' Stoned" is simple enough, and devastating: "She got a rock, and I'm gettin' stoned."

Elsewhere Friday, he pledged allegiance to the Hag, examined the pros and cons of Gentleman Jack in "Jack Daniel's" and its aftermath in "Hung Over and Hard Up" (one of his sunnier tunes, actually), and sang the praises of everything from NASCAR, Red Man tobacco and George Strait on "Sunday Afternoon."

But the song that cemented my interet in Church is "Creepin'," the first country song I have heard in I don't know how long that recalls the existentialism of prime Bobby Bare or Johnny Paycheck: Just real sad shit -- heartsick, unbelievably bleak, suffused with real dread, flop sweat and the memorable final image of a light at the end of a tunnel that is (of course) "your memory train."

It's the kind of song that makes today's record-label people put their heads on their desks, until perhaps they see it in concert, where the chorus comes on like a (Carolina) hurricane and Church and his band are amidst a full-on outlaw-boogie breakdown by the end.

As for "Springsteen," it was positioned as the last song of the encore, like Church wanted to put it off as long as possible before playing it. After all the rocking out they did, the introspective "Springsteen" is kind of a buzzkill, so it makes sense to save it to the very end. (The only other real ballad was the title song to 2009's Carolina, which unfortunately came off like warmed-over Matchbox 20, but left no aftertaste because of "I'm Gettin' Stoned.")

But they have to play "Springsteen." As similar in both theme (uneasy nostalgia) and bittersweet tone to Don Henley solo '80s songs like "The Boys of Summer" and "The End of the Innocence" as it is, of course it became a hit.

Church may not be not wet behind the ears anymore, but Friday he gave the impression that he's still feeling his way around a little, between down-home traditionalism, poppier balladeering and the teeth-baring, chest-pounding (which he really did) rowdy outlaw stuff, before he really plants his flag. Guess which one he really seems to like?

If he comes up with songs like "Creepin'" and "Springsteen" each time out, the mountain will come to him.

Personal Bias: I like country music, both the poppy mainstream stuff that isn't complete shite and the edgier, alternative stuff. Church I like.

The Crowd: Oh, Texas women. So young.

Overheard In the Crowd: I was mostly preoccupied trying to get my own tickets, but the guy at the next Will Call window was saying something about his brother with brain cancer and a VIP party. Now that's a country song.

Random Notebook Dump: People took off their boots and held them in the air during "These Boots." I smelled leather.

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