Eric Church in Pittsburgh
When musicians and their team sit down to start planning a new tour, one of three things will result: either the show they stage will be basically the same show they’ve run before using the same stage set-up and basic set list to reduce everyone’s time, money and stress (think Tim McGraw); the show will employ the same technology and set-up that has become the standard for such tours (big back screen, big amps, some kind of multi-level stage arrangement) (think Rascal Flatts); or they will completely go out on a limb and reinvent how an audience can see the show (think Brad Paisley). In recent years the difference between acts who invest thought into their lighting and screen imagery and those who don’t has become clear; the latter use random geometric patterns or old video footage to play alongside the live action, while the former design and incorporate the screens for a more encompassing and tightly synched audio-visual entertainment. This can be especially big issue if a band returns to the same audience pool year after year with the same old show — it looks and feels tired.
When Eric Church sat down to design this tour, someone must have said something along these lines: instead of erecting our set behind a big curtain while the crowd waits after the opening act leaves the stage, and then turning the house lights out when the band goes on for a splashy POW moment, why don’t we just clear off the opening act’s equipment and leave a completely empty stage? The crowd will be puzzled at first, and then grow massively excited trying to figure out how on earth the band will get on stage!
And then someone else must have said: OK, let’s do it.
The Inky Jukebox is here to say it worked. Church and his axe men strode out to mics, while the drum kit and drummer lowered from the roof of the arena to a pretzel-type stage set amidst the audience at one end of the floor. What this set-up allowed was for a dazzling array of lighting effects to go into effect – both from the stage itself and from above, in a series of lights that were raised and lowered like giant cage bars made of translucent color. The screen, such as it was, and speakers sat above the stage, small and four-sided, so everyone could get a view.
The result was a dynamic and exciting set. The only drawback was for the fans seated in the arena’s upper decks, for whom the small screens were mostly obscured, resulting in our not being able to see any of the performers in any detail at all — they remained tiny figures for the entire show. At least big screens can let those fans see a singer’s face once in a while. And while we’re at it, the multi-direction speakers delivered a lot of muffled sound that appeared to pick up and incorporate echoes due to its central location; anything less than very clear enunciation got lost. While this aspect wasn’t so bad for Church himself, it was a disaster for Dwight Yoakam, whose style didn’t lend itself to this set-up at all. Mostly he sounded like someone who doesn’t know the lyrics making speech-like sounds in their place, which is surely not the case.
About Church’s show: suffice it to say that it was, as he promised, “the shit.” Church is practiced enough of a performer to deliver a tight, loud, musical, crowd-pleasing entertainment package as anyone you will ever see. The addition of Joanna Cotten to provide her inimitable backing vocals and duet services is a delight (girl can wail).
Also: Church played “Carolina,” a song The Inky Jukebox never thought she’d hear him sing and had all but given up on. SCORE!
The Inky Jukebox has just a few observations, this being her fifth Church show.
1) Church played all the usual suspects form his back catalogue EXCEPT “Love Your Love The Most,” which is also conspicuously missing from his live album. What gives?
2) It would have been great to hear some songs from The Outsiders which are possibly AMAZING live, such as: “Roller Coaster Ride,” “Like A Wrecking Ball,” and “The Joint.” What gives?
3) While it is cute and possibly dangerous to commit to play a song an audience member picks, it can backfire spectacularly, and not in the way you might expect: sure, you could forget the words or someone could pick a lesser-known song from the Caldwell County EP — or someone could pick their own personal favorite song, which also happens to be a song you’ve played a ZILLION times at every show. The crowd, which has the possibility of a delightful surprise ahead of them (what will he play? Something obscure? Something he doesn’t usually play and which I’ve never heard him do live?) can grow disgruntled if it seems like a wasted opportunity (as it was in Pittsburgh last night). What gives?
4) Encores. Audiences expect them. Towards the end of a show, the audience will start thinking about what song(s) they are going to be treated to as an encore. Sure, ending with “Springsteen” makes for a good show-ender (it was what he ended the last tour with), but with no especially different treatment than any other big hit, and no indication that this would be the last song, it is a bit confusing when the house lights go on signaling, unexpectedly, the end. No band introductions? No particular thank you to the crowd? No take-a-bow? What gives?
All of this being said, Eric Church is an artist at the top of his game, and puts on a hell of a show. See him at all costs.
SET LIST (In no particular order)
Sinners Like Me
Sinners Like Me
Pledge Allegiance to ht Hag
Before She Does
Guys Like Me
Lotta Boot Left To Fill
Smoke a Little Smoke
Country Music Jesus
I’m Getting Stoned
Drink in my Hand
Over When It’s Over
That’s Damn Rock and Roll
Give me Back my Hometown