If you’re going to play a song called “Country Music Jesus” at one of your sold-out arena shows, and the drummer’s entire riser is going to start ascending heavenward during the first chorus, you better have the chops to pull the whole thing off… or the wise-ass humor to laugh at how ridiculous you’re being. At last night’s Outsiders World Tour stop in Louisville, Eric Church had plenty of both.
He also had lights, smoke, ropes, pulleys, ramps, video screens, rotating cameras, hydraulic scissor lifts and a curved, 360-degree stage that allowed his six-piece band to play to all corners of the KFC Yum! Center. It was a beast of a production, more indebted to Muse or Def Leppard than the country vets mentioned in songs like “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.” Actually, at least half of the concert was a bona fide rock show, and the remaining 50 percent straddled the country/rock divide equally, filled with as much four-on-the-floor fury as two-step twang. (Unless you’re counting the countrified openings sets by Dwight Yoakam, whose band dressed like glitter cowboys and played like honky-tonk heroes, and Brothers Osborne, a group of roots-rock guitar heroes whose current single, “Rum,” barely hints at what they’re able to do.)
Church didn’t thank the troops. He didn’t give it up to God. He didn’t even tell his fans to raise up their beers. Those might be country traditions, but they’re boring ones, and Church knows it. Besides, the Kentucky audience had heard those things before. What we hadn’t heard were songs like the proggy “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness),” amplified to arena-rock proportions by three electric guitarists and performed in its entirety while a giant skull descended from the ceiling and hovered somewhere around the sound booth, its jaws flapping up and down as it bounced in the air. That was something new, and it packed a serious punch.
At the center of the spectacle was the Chief himself. The guy doesn’t just sing — he shouts, cackles, croons and generally freaks the hell out. Is it all a performance? Maybe. But it’s believable, too. Whenever the Louisville crowd shouted the lyrics to songs like “Drink in My Hand” and “Talladega,” Church — who was still touring the club circuit when Chief became a surprise hit in 2011 — convulsed like an epileptic patient, physically blown away by the power of 20,000 pairs of lips speaking his own words in unison. It was a touching human element in a show filled with gadgets and electronics. Church may claim to be an outsider, and his music does place him on the fringes of pretty much any single genre… but last night, the dude was king.
Earlier this month, Church gave Rolling Stone Country a preview of the show before the tour kicked off. “I want everybody in that place to feel like they experienced something, that they’re going to tell people, ‘That show was spiritual to me. I felt it,'” Church said. “It’s up to the spirit in the room to see if people feel that, but we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”