Play by the rules? Not country music’s cool guy Eric Church.
It’s 8:45 PM on Friday and The Anthem is buzzing with anticipation. There’s an above-average ratio of cowboy boots to attendees in comparison to what this venue normally experiences and whiskey is clearly tonight's drink of choice.
Normally an opener would be playing at this time, but the stage is empty. Country music’s cool guy is here for night one of his two-show DC stopover, and he decided no opener was needed. Eric Church, aka "Chief," steps on stage and everyone is immediately energized, proving that Church was right, no opener is needed when you have such a full-throttle approach to your shows.
Church may be a country artist, but he thrives in an interesting sweet spot between pop country, rock, and folk. As Church kicked off his set with a thumping, guitar-heavy “Knives of New Orleans,” the atmosphere was more reminiscent of the beginning of a Tom Petty rock show than anything country. But as Church transitioned into a more radio-ready country tune in “Desperate Man,” he illustrated why he’s become one of the genre's biggest stars. He can be rock-and-roll, he can be mainstream country-pop, he can be front-porch folk – there are no rules in Chief’s world.
No stop on Church’s Double Down Tour has featured an opener, and each stop has featured two shows on back-to-back nights, a testament to Church’s commitment to his craft and his fans. Give them a damn good performance and two chances to catch it before hitting the next city.
Church played for somewhere around three hours on Friday, running through a whopping 32 songs to the pleasure of the crowd. While the marathon of the set was impressive, the venue was what made the night particularly special. Church was entertaining a 6,000-person audience, opting for a more intimate show in a somewhat-rare departure from the massive arenas he’s capable of selling out.
“I’ve been very very excited for this night for a long time,” Church said shortly after kicking off the evening. “We cut our teeth in places like this. It’s going to be a little bit more like it was back then.”
The Anthem may have been a smaller scene than Church has grown accustomed to, but it felt just as loud and rowdy as his larger-scale shows. During “Creepin’” and “Drink in My Hand,” the ground had a steady shake with all of the boots stomping, and if you kept your eyes fixated above the line of the audience's heads, you could see a steady rhythm of people raising their drinks to the stage and splashes of beer, whiskey, and who knows what else escaping cups.
Church earned the nicknamed Chief in part due to his reputation for being a no-nonsense artist who does things his own way, but that demeanor didn’t always play to his advantage. In 2006, when Church was starting to make a name for himself as an opener on Rascal Flatts’ tour, he was fired for playing too long beyond his allotted set times. After the incident Church said he felt like he was “banished to the wilderness,” but maybe that experience helped shape his relentless approach to performing and the chip on his shoulder that he brings with him everywhere he goes. He's going to give you as much as he possibly can during his one night with you.
“Either you’re gonna submit or we’re gonna submit at the end of this!,” Church yelled with a chuckle after “Smoke A Little Smoke.”
His too-long jam sessions may have gotten him in trouble early in his career, but now it’s the very thing that makes Church so beloved by fans. This is his domain now, and he’s going to make sure his shows are long, loud, and unrelenting.
Maybe Church does play by the rules, they’re just his own distinct set of rules – no bullshit, no frills, three hours of energy and camaraderie and music. And at the end of the night, it feels as if it’s the crowd who’s submitting, not Church, who’s ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
Knives of New Orleans
How 'Bout You / Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way / Black Betty
I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry/Cold One
Over When It's Over
Drink in My Hand
Round Here Buzz
Country Music Jesus
Smoke A Little Smoke
Sinners Like Me
That's Damn Rock & Roll
Lotta Boot Left to Fill
Pledge Allegiance to the Hag
Mixed Drinks About Feelings
Like a Wrecking Ball
Some of It
Give Me Back My Hometown
Holdin' My Own
The Load-Out / Stay (Jackson Browne cover)
Maybe Church does play by the rules, they’re just his own distinct set of rules – no bullshit, no-frills, three hours of energy and camaraderie and music. And at the end of the night, it feels as if it’s the crowd who’s submitting, not Church, who’s ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
Reviewed by Kayla Wilkinson, photos by Meme Fernández.