by Bill Paddack
It’s been a spectacular year for country-rocker Eric Church, the man many consider to be the current reincarnation of so-called outlaw country. (Think Waylon and Willie in their prime, not the country pop crossover sounds of Lady Antebellum or Rascal Flatts.)
A few weeks back his “Chief” was named Album of the Year by the Country Music Association and one night before he hit Verizon Arena in North Little Rock on the Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour, Church was nominated for a pair of Grammy awards — Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song, both for the hit “Springsteen.”
So it was only natural that he was in the mood to celebrate Thursday night and the 9,607 fans in attendance at Verizon were more than ready to help him out. Church promised an unforgettable show and then proceeded to deliver just that during a rowdy, 90-minute performance that boasted loud guitars, frequent flashes of fire, a cup holder on his microphone stand for what he said was whiskey, beer kegs for the onstage décor and — best of all — the well-written, memorable songs that showcase his versatility.
With his trademark baseball cap and sunglasses in place along with a long-sleeved black henley, jeans and boots, he hit the stage, launched into “Country Music Jesus” and from there proceeded to rock the place out. After rolling through songs including “Guys Like Me” and “Over When It’s Over,” he traded his guitar for a banjo and belted out the unique “Creepin.’”
A clever and creative songwriter, Church sings his songs his way. What’s not to like about “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” about bar patrons regularly giving country legend Merle Haggard his due. “Love Your Love the Most” is his version of a love song, and he pushes the traditional country envelope a bit with songs like “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” and “Smoke A Little Smoke.”
Along the way, Church delighted with the slower-paced “Sinners Like Me” and later in the evening inspired a number of fans to take their boots off and wave them around during “These Boots.” Cigarette lighters and, these days, cell phones have long been on display during concerts, but the boots-in-the-air thing was a first for us.
Church closed the concert and his three-song encore with “Springsteen,” the wide-open ode to days gone by and memories that live on in a song. Easily one of the best country singles of 2012, its poignant lyrics hit the spot: “Funny how a melody sounds like a memory / Like a soundtrack to a July Saturday night / Springsteen.” He added a verse from “Born to Run” in his own style, much to the crowd’s delight.
If Church is country’s new outlaw in town, he certainly had a pair of suitable singer-songwriter sidekicks with him. Kip Moore opened the show, packing solid melodies about trucks, girls and drinking into his pleasing eight-song set. A few highlights: the lively “Beer Money,” the sweet and slow “Hey Pretty Girl” and “Somethin' 'Bout A Truck,” which included something about “beer sitting on ice,” “a girl in a red sundress” and “a creek around 2 a.m.”
Next up was Arkansan Justin Moore, an authentic country singer if there ever was one. He showed where he stands on songs like “Hank It” and “Guns” and at one point, right after “Small Town USA,” he paused, knelt down and enjoyed — and seemed obviously touched by — the thunderous applause from the home-state fans, telling them “thank you for making my dream come true.”
It was nice to see Moore, who grew up at Poyen, get almost an hour on stage. His satisfying 10-song set also included the crowd favorite “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” which had those cell phones we mentioned earlier out in force lighting up the arena.
More photos after the jump.