Eric Church


By Adam Lucas

THE GORGE—“I’m everything she is and everything she ain’t.”

“You say he’s just a friend, oh baby

Youuuuuu got what I need but you say he’s just a friend.”

“She lies and says she’s in love with him

Can’t find a better man.”

No, don’t change the channel. This is still the Outsiders Revival Tour. But it’s also the Outsiders Revival Tour at the Gorge, a one of a kind venue that got a deservedly one of a kind show on Saturday night.

There was still Hailey Whitters and Jelly Roll and Eric Church, of course. But there was also Biz Markie and Alan Jackson and Pearl Jam. And I fully understand that these combinations do not necessarily make sense in Nashville or Peoria or Birmingham. But here, a couple hours away from Seattle, somehow it felt just perfect.

No one goes to the Gorge by accident. The venue was packed to its listed capacity of 27,500 on Saturday, and every single one of those people consciously planned weeks or months ago to be in attendance. Getting here is pretty simple. Go right to the edge of civilization, and then keep going. When you start to grow concerned about the last time you saw another living human being, you’re getting close.

This is the type of show that—for good reason—people want to check off their list. So maybe they even choose to skip the show that’s closer to their hometown, and instead fly to Seattle or Spokane and then drive to George, Wash. to be part of a night like this. And why not? It is gorgeous. 

Now, let’s be honest: the Gorge can be a bit of a pain, too. Setup is a challenge because of limited space, and the sound crew has to be alert for songs doing some weird things bouncing around the rocks, and there is a whole thing about rattlesnakes that we won’t get into here because I don’t want you to have bad dreams tonight.

But still…that view. Scenery like this is supposed to come with a souvenir stand, not live music. Logistics mean there’s very little choice but to spend the entire day here, which turns out to be completely fine in the middle of the afternoon when you’re sitting there with your friends at the campsite or at the winery and suddenly the sounds of “Heart on Fire” being sound checked start to roll across the landscape. 

It feels a little like summer camp with head counselor Eric Church. Thirty minutes before he went on stage, Jelly Roll was smashing biodegradable golf balls off the most picturesque tee box this side of Pebble Beach. “Can you get a video?” he asked a bystander, because you simply don’t hit many shots like this one.

On the other side of backstage, tens of thousands had already gathered for the show. You don’t arrive close to show time at The Gorge. That’s partially because if you arrive early, you’re rewarded with one of the best views in music. And the effort everyone made to get there was rewarded. 

“When I got the phone call to open up for Eric Church,” said Jelly Roll, perhaps including a couple extra modifiers, “I said absolutely. And then I found out it involved doing two nights at the most beautiful venue in the United States of America.”

Jelly played a 90s country medley of “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” Surely those songs have been done here before. But they have absolutely never been done here before when immediately followed with a 90s rap medley of “Boys n the Hood,” “Ruff Ryder Anthem,” “Lose It,” “Ms. Jackson” and “Just a Friend.”

On that last one, the crowd took over singing, prompting Jelly’s band to stop playing and Jelly Roll himself to just sit down on the stage and take it all in.

It was an appropriate warmup for their singing during the headlining act. By the time he reached the midpoint of his set, Church had already said, “I’m in the mood to kick some ass tonight,” during a particularly raucous version of “Mr. Misunderstood.” Anyone who doubted him quickly understood their mistake.

A couple songs later, Church said, “I was trying to figure out what to do that we’ve either not done or not done in a long time for this spot for this show.” This is someone who plays so many different songs that finding a rarity is very difficult for him to do.

Then, while illuminated by a single spotlight under the black, star-filled sky, he broke into the opening notes of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man,” a song he’s played live just twice. Once was here at The Gorge in 2019, and the other was in Tacoma in 2017.

Now you can add 2023 to that list, and the crowd was predictably enthralled by the cover of a band that has been a local here for (gulp) over 30 years. Saturday night had as many girls on their date’s shoulders as the entire rest of the tour combined, and Church’s staff had asked the venue to let the occasionally frowned upon practice slide on this evening. The instruction was simple: “Let them have fun.”

And that’s exactly what they did.

Walking back to the very back of the second level of the lawn—yes, the lawn has two levels here—you truly understood the magnitude of the scale of the venue.

So how do you touch every corner of it? During “Some Of It,” Church wrapped his arms around his guitar and sang, with searing inflection, “You don’t get to do some things again.” It felt every bit as if he was singing to each and every individual in the crowd, and as if he knew exactly what that line made you wish you could do again for every single person in attendance. 

That’s the magic. Every person interprets that line differently. And every performer who has stood on that stage since this venue opened 30 years ago has understood that this is about scale, about doing it the biggest way possible. You simply can’t look out at the Columbia River and watch the sun go down and imagine it any other way.

The most talented entertainer of any and every year somehow managed to shrink the room and give every ticketholder a personal moment.

“This,” Church told the crowd, “is one of three spots in the world I would play every day of my life.” 

He gets to do it again on Sunday. 

Get here. If you can.