September 24, 2023

The Outsiders Revival Tour - Charlotte, NC 9.23.23 (Night 1)

CHARLOTTE—Eric Church stood on the stage at PNC Music Pavilion on Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd of 19,500. He was about an hour down the road from where he was raised in Granite Falls.


The path that led him to Saturday’s over two-hour set—easily the longest of the Outsiders Revival Tour so far—began when he was 11 or 12 years old and Rita Church was straightening up her son’s room. In a drawer, she found note cards, scrap paper, and napkins—all with words scrawled on them.


“I first thought it was trash,” she says. “And then I realized it was songs he had written. Whenever he thought of something, whether he was at a restaurant or at school or anywhere he might be, he’d grab a piece of paper or a napkin and write it down. That’s when I thought this might be a dream he would pursue for a long time unless something changed for him.”


Not long after that, Eric was reading one of the country music periodicals (kids, we used to have these things called “magazines”). He saw an ad for a songwriting and music business conference in Charlotte. 


“Mama,” he said, “I want to go to this.”


She didn’t roll her eyes. She didn’t tell him to wait until he was older. She packed up the car and off they went, spending a day at a downtown Charlotte hotel back in the days when there weren’t many downtown Charlotte hotel options.


That’s where it started. And now we’re here. 


Think of the odds. Think of the chances that a kid who grew up enthralled with Muggsy Bogues and Kelly Tripucka and the rest of the Charlotte Hornets would one day own a piece of his hometown NBA team, and would play back to back sold-out nights at the same venue where he once attended shows. 


There is only one possible conclusion: The teacher at that country music conference in downtown Charlotte must have been really, really good.


It wasn’t that easy, of course. Rita Church remembers nights that were not at all like this, when he was part of the Mountain Boys with his brother, Brandon. “There were nights,” Rita says, “when they’d be lucky to have a dozen people there. And so on nights in those big venues, I try to look around and make sure I take in all the people packed in there. He’s always had a vision of what he wanted to do. And proud is an understatement.”


On Saturday, back in a purple Hornets t-shirt, Eric Church looked very much at home. He took time to enjoy it, took time to really relish being in front of almost 20,000 of his people, enjoyed peering up on the lawn where there was not a single square of available grass. “I’ve got incredibly high expectations for you tonight,” he told the crowd. “I’ve told the band, I’ve told the crew, ‘Don’t worry, my people will get over the bar.’”


And they did. It is impossible to name a “best” show of any tour. But at the conclusion of the Outsiders Revival Tour, you will not be able to have the “best show of the tour” discussion without including Saturday night in Charlotte.


It began before he even took the stage. During the meet and greet (a Church Choir perk), he met an eight-year-old girl.


“Tell him your favorite song,” her mother said.


“Can I say it?” the little girl asked sheepishly.


“Yes,” her mother said.


“That’s Damn Rock and Roll,” the girl almost whispered. 


“When you hear that from a really cute eight year old girl,” Church said, “you can’t turn it down. We’re not prepared, but we’re going to do it.”


He wasn’t kidding. By the time he made the change, just a couple minutes before he took the stage, the set list had already been printed. Frantic edits were made stageside, crossing out the original song in the 13th position and subbing in “That’s Damn Rock and Roll.”


And that wasn’t even the most last-second set change of the night. A couple songs later, Church spotted another sign. Understand this: he hasn’t been regularly doing this on this tour. It’s not as though he picks out a couple signs every night and makes dreams come true. But this was for the home folks.


So without even fully reading it, he grabbed the sign from a seven-year-old just to his left. He brought it on the stage, unfurled it, and began chuckling. Then he offered some sage life advice: “Never grab anything unless you’re sure what you’re grabbing.”


The full message of Izzy Moss’s sign was simple. She’d made her favorite singer a bracelet, and had attached it to the sign. In return, she wanted him to play “Look Good And You Know It.”


Only one very small problem: no one on the stage had prepared to play that song at all. This was over an hour into the set. He couldn’t just huddle behind the stage with the band and run it through a couple times. “What key is this in?” he asked as he began trying to find the right notes.


But you don’t let down your people. And as he found the key, he also found that steely resolve that has worked flawlessly from the roughest bar to the biggest stadiums. “I’m going to kill this,” he said, and then he tore off, with Izzy enthralled by every word, singing along to every syllable. 


It was fun to watch her be amazed that her hero—who she’s already seen four times in concert, even though she’s only seven—was playing her song. It was almost as fun to watch all the other fans around her, who spent just as much time watching her enjoy the song as they did watching the stage. That’s connecting a melody and a memory—for everyone. When it was over, Church blew her a kiss. Izzy high-fived the nearby security guards. What a night.


Most artists wouldn’t attempt one such audible. Church did it three times in one night. The final one came during his encore. When he left the stage after “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” he was discussing the post-encore songs. He looked through the set list, which was essentially in shambles at this point.


“We have to add Ray-Bans,” he said. He’d spotted yet another sign and wanted to make the night special for someone else. Twelve-year-old Leighton had driven from outside Atlanta with her family on Saturday to see the first concert of her life, which just happened to be by her very favorite artist, Eric Church. 


She’d told her parents, “I’m going to try and get his glasses.” The odds were astronomical. So far, it hadn’t happened once on this tour. But that’s why she made the sign, asking him to play “Through My Ray-Bans” and then hand her his signature sunglasses.


And then he made it the final song of a 24-song night. Near the end of the song, he called Leighton down to the front of the stage and handed her his sunglasses. She put them on and began crying immediately. Ten minutes after the show ended, she was still crying. It was explained to her that this kind of thing doesn’t happen at every concert, and that she shouldn’t expect a similar outcome the next time she goes to a concert.


As dads often are, her father was pragmatic: “This might be the highlight of your concert attendance experience,” he told her.


Leighton’s eyes widened. And then she spoke not just for everybody in the venue, but also for the star who brought them all together, who played until the curfew simply wouldn’t let him play another note.


“It is,” she almost shouted, “the highlight of my life!”