“I don’t know how long this building has been here,” Eric Church told fans near the end of his concert at Joe Louis Arena Thursday night, “but it is my intention to burn this son of a (gun) to the ground.”
No worries, the Joe is still standing, but Church definitely brought the house down at his 100-minute barn-burner of a concert, the 35-year-old country music bad boy’s biggest area show to-date.
Church scratched and clawed his way to the Joe Louis stage, working his way up through the ranks step-by-step over the last six years. And Thursday was the big payoff: A sheer blast of a show, featuring elements of flashy production but built mostly from old-school showmanship and flair. The pacing was tight throughout the evening; and Church and his band were pros, playing like they had been at the arena level for years. With a show like Thursday’s, they’re not going away anytime soon.
For his part, Church has starpower to spare, a hard-fought authenticity and a love for performing that shines through on stage.
He frequently shouts off microphone at fans, pumping them up with his emphatic gestures, a huge smile beaming across his face. On stage, he plays the Eric Church character, his eyes hidden behind mirrored aviator shades and a baseball cap pulled low on his head. This Church is a hard-drinking, hard-partying entertainer, and he likely has plenty in common with the real Church, only with everything cranked way up.
For this outing, the country music performer made the bold decision to forgo the use of video screens, after seeing artists like Bob Seger work the crowd without the aid of them on either side of the stage. To Church’s credit, the screens were never missed; he’s so expressive and oversized in his movements that you never felt like you were missing out on the tiny details of the show.
While the action was frequently punctuated by bursts of pyro and flames, one of the chief production elements was decidedly analog, as Church relied on large stage backdrops that crew members manually changed. It was a statement, a throwback to a time before modern video wizardry that takes center stage at so many of today’s arena shows, but he made it work.
Thursday’s show opened with Church rising from below the stage, surrounded by smoke, for “Country Music Jesus,” his tongue-in-cheek plea for the emergence of a “pure” country savior. Drinking was never far from the forefront of his mind; Church had a cup holder attached to his microphone stand, and the stage was lined with beer kegs. One of the concert’s high points came during “Jack Daniels,” which found the singer shadowboxing at center stage while showers of sparks rained from above. The song’s chorus: “Jack Daniels kicked my (rear end) again last night.”
An electric “Homeboy” closed out the main set, and “Smoke a Little Smoke” kicked off a three-song encore. “These Boots” followed, with many audience members taking off their boots and waving them in the air. The show closed with a tender rendition of Church’s monster hit “Springsteen,” which found him reworking a verse of the Boss’ “Born to Run” with a Nashville twang.
Church’s energy never wavered, and the enthusiastic crowd gave it back to him throughout the night. He proved not only that he can work at an arena level but that he belongs there, and it’s safe to say that on Thursday, Church attracted a few more converts.