Eric Church


By Adam Lucas

MILWAUKEE—Around 1 a.m. on Thursday morning, Eric Church walked the grounds of the American Family Insurance Amphitheater in Milwaukee.

That’s what happens when the tour buses for the Outsiders Revival Tour pull into town a little early and the star of the show sleeps on his bus in the parking lot. But as usual for someone who works on a very different clock than the rest of us, there wasn’t much sleep. Which is how he ended up walking through the quiet, dark venue.

“I was imagining,” he said, “the madness that would ensue.”

It takes dozens of trucks and buses and hundreds of people to make this tour happen. And for two hours Thursday on a perfect lakefront Milwaukee night, it came together on the inaugural evening of what promises to be everything you love about an Eric Church tour—and everything you haven’t seen before on an Eric Church tour.

This was a different kind of show. Milwaukee is deservedly proud of their Summerfest, a city tradition that’s been running in various formats for the last five decades. It’s not specifically an Eric Church show…it’s more like a festival that happens to include one of the nation’s biggest stars. Look off the back of the lawn and you’ll spot an active Ferris wheel, 13 more stages of music in addition to the main stage, and around 9:30  p.m., the Big Bang fireworks, an over half-hour fireworks show that is essentially the unofficial start of summer in Cream City. 

It wasn’t planned, but the fireworks managed to blast off just as Church was debuting a new arrangement of “Drink In My Hand.” Maybe the song sounds a little different on this tour. Maybe it’s not exactly the way you’ve sung it all those nights driving down the road with the windows down.

But in the end, it all came back to Church and twenty thousand of his closest friends meeting once again on the chorus to “Fill it up/throw it back” as fireworks popped overhead. There are cities that pay a lot of money for the unintentional choreography that hit a few minutes later when “Bang, bang, bang” hit exactly as the pyrotechnics were illuminating the sky.

You could almost see Church remembering how fun this whole thing could be. Even on a night when he was fighting through some sickness, he looked like he was having every bit the same memorable night that the thousands of fans were enjoying. He couldn’t help but start laughing as he tried to get through the whistling on “Right Where I Wanna Be,” and he looked genuinely touched when the crowd seized control on “Round Here Buzz” to roar “hell bent on savin’ me” back at him. 

“I’ve missed this,” he told the crowd. “We’ve been sitting at the house for way too long.”

This isn’t some canned production that will be the same tomorrow night in Detroit and identical on Saturday in Cleveland. At 8 p.m. on Thursday, Church was still doctoring his set list for the evening. He’d worked out the beginning, and worked out the end, but still wanted to refine that middle section, which included some you’d always expect to hear—“Homeboy” and “Smoke a Little Smoke”—along with some deeper cuts, like “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Where I Wanna Be.” 

Here’s the thing: he’s Eric Church. Maybe you’re used to seeing him for three hours and almost 40 songs on a recent tour. This summer’s tour will be closer to two hours and two dozen songs, so some favorites might get left out on a particular evening. But some will also make a surprise appearance, like “Old Friends, Old Whiskey, Old Songs,” which Church made a spur of the moment decision to include at the close of Thursday’s show (the set list he had worked so hard on, after all, is just a suggestion). "Tonight's going to be different," he promised at the outset, in a proclamation that could work for both the night and the tour. "But it's going to be badass."

Two hours before the show, members of Church’s team were walking through the venue taking pictures from different angles, imagining perhaps a graphic here or maybe a way to catch the crowd’s eye on stage there.

They talked about the work that had gone into this night and this tour. “Every night,” said Marshall Alexander, “is going to have its moment.”

Thursday night had plenty of them. Detroit, get ready.