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Review: Eric Church Is Loose, Funky in 33-Song Double Down Tour Opener

Performer pulls from all six of his studio albums in marathon, two-set show in Omaha

Eric Church

Eric Church kicked off his 2019 Double Down Tour in Omaha, Nebraska, on Friday night.

Reid Long

“Let’s funk it up,” Eric Church called out near the halfway point of his concert in Omaha, Nebraska, on Friday night, the first of two shows he’ll perform in the city to launch his 2019 Double Down Tour. The band followed his lead, kicking off an especially greasy version of “Hangin’ Around,” a track off Church’s latest album Desperate Man. The freewheeling jam underscored the vibe of the tour’s opening night, one where loose, funky explorations were given just as much space as the singer’s radio hits. This was Church, one of country music’s most bankable stars, spending the creative capital he’s earned with fans.

Performing in front of three tiers of video screens on a massive stage with a circular ramp, Church tapped into all six of his albums to flesh out a 33-song set list that dwarfs those of his country peers. Opening with the superlative “Knives of New Orleans,” off 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood, his howls of “I did what I did” stretched all the way to the back of the sold-out CHI Health Center (if there was any fallout from Church’s comments to Rolling Stone about the NRA in July, it didn’t affect ticket sales). A rollicking rendition of “Desperate Man,” with guitarist Driver Williams on bongos, and Church’s debut single “How ‘Bout You” followed, making for a potent three-punch combination.

What distinguishes Church’s fans from others in the country genre is how they respond to his deep tracks. “Over When It’s Over,” off his 2011 breakout LP Chief, elicited one of the biggest reactions of the first set, particularly when Church’s backing vocalist and onstage foil, the marvelous Joanna Cotten, stepped to the fore to belt some dynamic notes. Likewise, “Mr. Misunderstood” inspired fans to sing along with its rapid-fire verses — all the more notable since the single with its shout-outs to Jeff Tweedy and Ray Wylie Hubbard only broke the Top 20 on the charts.

After putting a period on the first set with the heavy metal of “The Outsiders,” Church and his six-piece band broke for a 20-minute intermission, one of the many ways the entertainer has redefined country tours since his Holdin’ My Own trek in 2017. As on that run, there were no opening acts on Friday, putting the onus on Church to keep the crowd engaged, which he did with minimal stage production. While the video screens shifted and tilted, the most noticeable set piece was a lighting rig that ran all the way to the end of the arena, shining silos of light onto individual fans at various points in the show.

But the post-Outsiders version of Church has never been all that into visual shock and awe. As he’s proven on Desperate Man, he’s succeeding because of his songwriting and is relishing the role of troubadour. In “The Snake,” which opened Set 2, he told his political parable of competing serpents. For “Monsters,” he channeled his instincts as a protective father. And in new single “Some of It,” he parsed the nuances of life in a far from cut-and-dry world.

Church is making a point to mix up the set list for each show and is emphasizing the unexpected. Even if it means going off the rails. Cotten took a star turn with an ace cover of the Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby.” But Church’s version of Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” a fan request, which he says he’ll take nightly, was a delirious train wreck, with the singer chuckling his way through forgotten lyrics.

Walking the tight rope of the live show is what makes Church concerts so satisfying, however. While he still pounds his chest and shakes his fist at just the right moments — and downs airplane bottles of Jack Daniel’s proffered by fans — he embraces spontaneity and the challenges that come with it.

Church reinforced that ethos early in the evening on Friday when, strapping on an electric guitar, he warily addressed the crowd. “For the first time ever…,” he said, proceeding to give the live debut of “Higher Wire.” With all its vocal cracks and tics, it’s Desperate Man‘s biggest risk. And one Church wasn’t afraid to take again on the first night of a major tour.

Church will wrap up his Omaha two-night stand on Saturday, before resuming the tour on January 25th and 26th in St. Louis, Missouri.

Set 1:
1. “Knives of New Orleans”
2. “Desperate Man”
3. “How ‘Bout You”
4.  “Mr. Misunderstood”
5.  “Cold One”
6. “Over When It’s Over”
7.  “Can’t Take It With You”
8. “Drink in My Hand”
9. “Carolina”
10. “Higher Wire”
11. “Before She Does”
12. “Talladega”
13. “Hangin’ Around”
14. “The Outsiders”

Set 2:
15. “The Snake”
16. “That’s Damn Rock & Roll”
17. “Record Year”
18. “Monsters”
19. “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag”
20. “Jack Daniel’s”
21. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings”
22. “Runaway”
23. “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”
24. “Longer Gone”
25. “Smoke a Little Smoke”
26. “Heart Like a Wheel”
27. “Some of It”
28. “Keep On”
29. “Give Me Back My Hometown”
30. “These Boots”
31. “Springsteen”
32. “Just Kissed My Baby”
33. “Holdin’ My Own”

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