Eric Church


By Adam Lucas

CINCINNATI—“Does it ever get old?”

It was about an hour before Eric Church took the stage Friday night at Riverbend Music Center. The well-meaning and appropriate question came from a friend who knew this was the tenth show of this tour.

Ten shows in less than a month. Same headliner. Same songs (well, sort of—we’ll get to that). 

Doesn’t it…just maybe…start feeling like you’ve seen this before?

Never. The openers on Friday night, for the first time on Outsiders Revival, were Muscadine Bloodline and Travis Tritt. But those are only the most noticeable differences from the previous nine dates on the tour.

I’m going to give you a little inside knowledge right here. Let’s keep this just with the Choir. The secret ingredient to an Eric Church show, the thing that can’t be replicated and that helps drive the entire night, is the people.

The people in the pit who bought tickets the very first minute they went on sale and the people on the lawn at their first show and the people in the merch line. That’s what makes these each their own unique night.

There is a chance—at least a tiny chance—that if Eric Church sat on his bus for ten straight nights and played these songs, it might eventually get repetitive. But take it from someone who saw this tour start to come to life in rehearsal in an empty amphitheater in Charlotte: it’s a completely different show when you add the sellout crowd, and every single one of those crowds is different and experiences the night in a different way.

So what kind of night was Friday night in Cincinnati? It was beachballs all over the lawn and a guy in a personalized red flannel shirt with Church’s picture on the back and some tailgating in the parking lot but also sailgating on the river with drop-offs directly by the venue.

The magic, and what makes Church such an entertainer, is that he has a feel for what might work in front of that crowd even when before they take their seats. And he’s thinking about it constantly. Trombone player Roy Agee was sitting backstage around 8:45 on Friday night. Church was scheduled to take the stage at 9 p.m. (ish). Agee still didn’t have the setlist.

That list of songs ultimately included one that was played for the first time on this tour—“Rock & Roll Found Me.” So what happens then? This group had never played that song together before, and now they were about to do it in front of 20,500 fans.

Most times it works. Very rarely  it doesn’t. But the key is being willing to take the chance. It would be far, far easier to write a setlist of 20 songs and play every single one of them at every single stop. Many big-time stars do exactly that. Most people wouldn’t complain. After all, you’ve got to play the hits.

That simply isn’t Eric Church. And it’s the variations that have made it entertaining. Church is quite obviously having fun—“That’s Eric Church on the whistle,” he congratulated himself after nailing the whistling part in “Where I Wanna Be”—and the relationship works both ways. If you’ve seen him on prior tours, you know that he frequently tells crowds that if they give him everything they’ve got, he’ll give it right back. That’s exactly what he does, and when both parties raise their levels, that’s when you get some transcendent moments. 

On Friday, “Creepin’” was so good that for the first time on this tour this early in the show, Church raised his sunglasses and peered out at the crowd, just wanting to see for himself exactly who it was that was making all this noise.

The horns and the trio of incredible backup singers—Whitney Coleman, Stephcynie Curry and April Rucker—have gotten most of the attention on the Outsiders Revival Tour, because they are fantastic. But Church can’t take these types of chances without the core band, most of which has helped propel him through so many tours and albums before. You have to have Driver Williams and Jeff Hyde and Lee Hendricks and Jeff Cease and Craig Wright and Billy Justineau to be able to read Church and know where he’s going, to recognize when he’s going to take some liberties and revise a song right in the middle, like changing “Give Me Back My Hometown” to say, “All the colors of my youth/the orange and black…” in a nod to the hometown Bengals. 

This is just life with Eric Church, and the band knows it, and that’s why they are so good together—and why every show is so different.

It’s the same people putting it together. Remember, there are so many more than just who you see on the stage. There’s a good chance that as you’re reading this, the set is in pieces in the back of an 18-wheeler. But by the time the gates open tonight in St. Louis, it’ll be assembled flawlessly thanks to the hard work of a crew of nearly seven dozen who, just like the guy whose name is on the t-shirts, are operating at a consistently elite level. Sometimes they’re tired and sometimes they have to miss their kid’s birthday party—happy first birthday, Ozzy, and don’t worry, your favorite stuffed raccoon is going to have a lot of stories from his tour around North America perched on top of the sound board—but in the end, it all comes together.

Here’s the magic: every person in that crowd of 20,500 walked out feeling like they had experienced that concert virtually one-on-one with Eric Church. That he was talking to them when he described an “absolutely crazy July Friday Cincinnati night” during Springsteen. That he really might come hang out on the lawn, as he suggested he might. Somehow we all had a collective experience, singing every word, but also had an individual one. Stars do that.

But they also aren’t intimidated by sharing the spotlight. “Springsteen” is a highlight every night. As mentioned previously, it has a new verse that makes it even more relatable, and there are thousands of people who bought tickets and sat in traffic and braved parking just to be there for that song, to have those four minutes while they sang every word.

Which makes it even more impressive that during his signature song, Church is OK turning it over to saxophone player Evan Cobb for an interlude. This is the equivalent of Michael Jordan passing the ball to John Paxson in key moments of the 1991 NBA Finals. But like the six-time champion Chicago Bulls, it works. It’s still the same “Springsteen”—except maybe it’s better.

And at minimum, it’s different. “If you’ve seen us before, you’ve never seen us like this,” Church promised the crowd early in Friday’s set.

He meant it’s not the same show as previous tours. But he very easily could have meant it was different from any of the previous nine nights on this tour. Ten shows in, it hasn’t been the same yet. Prepare yourself accordingly, St. Louis.