Eric Church


By Adam Lucas


PHOENIX—There were no shortage of entertainment opportunities in Phoenix this weekend.

Cirque du Soleil was at the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix, putting on four shows over the course of Saturday and Sunday. Right next door at Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks hosted the Chicago Cubs in a three-game weekend series, and the two teams played an epic 13-inning game on Saturday night. On Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals host the New York Giants.

The high Saturday was also 105 degrees, and it’s been as high as 113 degrees this week, so a suitable form of entertainment would also be sitting inside and cherishing the air conditioning.

But even with all the choices, even with all the diversity of options, there was nothing that compared to the scene 12 miles outside of downtown at Talking Stick Resort Amphitheater.

The sellout crowd of 20,000 that shoehorned into the venue received four hours of one of the most entertaining and memorable evenings so far of the Outsiders Revival Tour. It began with Paul Cauthen, who somehow blends the sound of Johnny Cash with the dance moves of an eastern Texas Michael Jackson. Don’t ask questions. If you were there, you (maybe) get it.

Then there was Jelly Roll, who outsmarted everyone by performing in shorts on the scorching night. “Tonight,” he told the crowd, “we are going to celebrate the year of the underdog.” 

Backstage, Church and his crew were preparing to match the energy level. Tour masseuse Mustang Sally and drummer Craig Wright exchanged their traditional pre-show chest bump. “It’s tradition,” Sally said simply.

Around 8:55 p.m., keys player Billy Justineau wandered into the production office in search of a set list. It was five minutes before Church is typically slated to take the stage. “Just wanted to see if there are any surprises,” Justineau said.

That one simple comment perfectly summarized why the Outsiders Revival Tour has been a must-see event everywhere it has gone this summer. Justineau is actually on the stage every night. He’s rehearsed, he’s sound checked, he’s performed. And yet, five minutes before he takes the stage, he has no concrete idea of what Eric Church is about to do.

So why wouldn’t every ticket sold come with a sense of anticipation? That’s why 20,000 people braved the temperatures to sit outside and experience it together. That’s why with all the options available to him in the Phoenix area, the most decorated Olympian in the history of sports, Michael Phelps, chose to be at the concert (you can thank him for “Talladega” being on the set list).

Where else would a savvy person be? By the time Church took the stage—tweaking the opener to go with the lesser-used “Country Music Jesus” in the first position—everyone in attendance had already had a memorable night. It was up to him to take it all the way to unforgettable. There are absolutely people making big money singing songs who would be petrified to put either Cauthen or Jelly—for a variety of reasons—in their show. It’s understandable for a less confident artist. You’re actively risking fans going home talking more about the support acts than the headliner. 

No problem. Church had them both on the same bill.

“We don’t get out to Phoenix as much as I would like,” he told the crowd. “And we’re going to make up for that tonight.”

He brought back “Damn Rock & Roll” for a second straight night, and it seemed to fit the mood of the evening perfectly. He also brought Jelly Roll back on stage to duet on “Homeboy.” By the time that one was finished, Church just shrugged at the crowd.

“Now what?” he said. It was a fair question. There are other artists who would have been left bare in front of 20,000 people after that type of collaboration. Not Church. He just went right into “Smoke a Little Smoke” and then followed it with “Give Me Back My Hometown,” and the night—which might have been teetering on the rails under a less steady hand—was back under his control again.

That’s who he is, and that’s why people buy tickets every night. During “Round Here Buzz,” it’s typical for him to tweak the line after “I’ve never had big city eyes” to include a reference to the local area. Sometimes it’s a challenge. After all, you try to rhyme something with Orange Beach. 

But Saturday night flowed perfectly:

“I never had big city eyes, I’m just trying to get back to Arizona.

“And you can bet your desert ass we’re going to put it on ya.”

That’s the kind of night it was. “Paul and Jelly,” Church said, “are weird like me.” Perhaps so. But there’s only one ringmaster capable of mixing them all together quite this way.

Cauthen was sitting in the front of house area when Church and Jelly Roll were singing “Homeboy.” 

“This is a special night,” Cauthen said, listening. “This doesn’t happen everywhere every night.”

It happened here on this night for one reason. We’ll leave it to the poet laureate of Phoenix, Mr. Jelly Roll himself, to explain it. As he walked off the stage following the duet, he looked back at the crowd. He gestured to the headliner, and in one magical phrase managed to perfectly describe why the Outsiders Revival continues to be something unpredictable every single night.

“The living legend himself,” he roared. “Eric Fuckin’ Church!”