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Eric Church’s “Holdin’ My Own” Tour At Barclay Center, Friday, January 27th, 2017, Reviewed

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Eric Church would be considered a lightweight if he was performing in the 1970s, but not if he was performing in the 1980s. He has half a great idea, what if Bruce Springsteen fronted the Eagles, but he doesn’t have the mental acumen to make the concept a cogent statement other than the usual suspects beer, birds and bluegrass. Add a fillip of hip hop style chest thumping ego bearing and top off with a bottle of  Black Jack and  bottom out with a tight pair of blue jeans (John Duffin: “A lunkhead, yes, but a hot lunkhead”), and you have Eric Church. On the misfits call to guitar arms “Mr. Misunderstood” Church sings:

“Now, your buddies get their rocks off on Top 40 radio
But you love your daddy’s vinyl, old-time rock and roll
Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and think Jeff Tweedy
Is one bad mother”

He places himself on the Outsider fringe but he isn’t a genius, he can write a song, sometimes a great song, always an aphorism or a derailed cliche, but he can’t write consistently great material.

That’s Eric Church but one more thing, on stage he is exemplary. His three hour, 28 songs,  plus intermission, concert Friday night at the Barclay Center was simply close to perfection. The first set was  one of the best you’ll see this year, with Eric’s in the circle stage design allowing him to give everybody a clear sightline for awhile at least while he moved between FIVE MICS: he used every inch of the real estate at his disposal (please note Caleb Followell), and while his smile was more like a smirk, so much the better from the hot headed biker boy. The second set sagged a little, and he forced himself into a stoic middle of the stage set up, as though Bruce had run out of energy half way through, but it was still very good. As a non fan, I was surprised by how much I prefered his material live on stage. And while the first two songs were not a sign post, the choir during “Music Is My Mistress” was an overreach, and “That’s Damn Rock And Roll” remains a dumb concept, they weren’t insulting. And while the audience occassionally erupted in “USA” chants, Eric pointedly ignored them.

This sense of restraint was the hallmark of his concert, a clear, clean, lean and powerful run through his ten years in the country music business. Church was very friendly, a real nice guy, his reputation as a bad mannered dick seemed to be misplaced. The man who claimed to have invented beer and trucks in country (the exact quote: “‘Guys Like Me’ has a guy that drinks too many beers. That was before anybody had ever put beer and trucks related in songs. Now, it’s in every song.”) knows enough to have a song called “Pledge Allegiance To The Hag”. When I first heard the song, I thought Church can’t shine Haggard’s shoes. But these are different times and in a long, playful, enjoyable set, well, he is a lot better than I ever gave him credit for.

With his band, the very solid six piece Outsiders, and a terrific back up singer to give him a fillip of soul, the first set was an energizer bunny, with Church using up every inch of the huge stage at the sold out Barclays. Blasting his way through one hit after another, despite a silly “Either I’ll kill you or you’ll kill me” call out to the audience (his patter was seriously second rate all night), song after song emerged as a huge anthem: “I did what I did”, “drink a little drink, smoke a little smoke”, “you ain’t round here none” -everything seemed to add up to a declarative statement of intent and Church was just on top of it all, extremely into it, very concentrated and yet cool. This is the man who was thrown off the Rascal Flatts tour for refusing to leave the stage in a timely manner (Taylor Swift replaced him), a toughie, argumentative cuss who well overestimates himself. Yeah, he is better than Luke and Jason, better than Brad 2017 (though not Brad 2005). But he isn’t in the same league as his heroes, the Leftys and Jones and Lynns and Partons; that doesn’t mean he isn’t near the top of a shallow heap right this minute.

After a 20 minute break (replete with countdown clock) he gave us more of the same except, a little deeper, a little more oldies oriented till the big bang (except he went acoustic for the big bang). The second set was tighter but less fun. Check out the first three songs, “Ain’t Dead Yet”, “Guys Like Me” (good line: “girls like guys like me”), and “Lotta Boot Left To Fill” -none of which are first tier. It takes a first time this tour “Country Music Jesus’ to turn round the set before a full service “Jack Daniels”. That song is one of his very best and he turned into performance art, not just knocking back a miniature handed by someone in the audience, but having the camera follow him backstage where he poured a round of shots for the crew and himself, knocked it back, and went back on stage with a huge glass emblazed with his album title, not to mention wink at the Boss, “Chief” emblazoned on it, filled to the brim with jack and coke. The next song was a terrific and very well received “Give Me Back My Hometown” and it was clear sailing after that, with all the lessons he learnt from the Boss, and from his country heroes, he just kept on punching us with haymaker after haymaker. past “Springsteen” and through to the end of the evening.

So where to place Eric Church now? In the top three country singers of 2017 who actually write their own material. A throwback and a throw down. Maybe he is a lightweight in some ways. Or maybe he brings his own weight to the proceedings. Either way, round here the buzz is that Church is a must see.

Grade: A-

 

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