Live: Eric Church Drinks A Little Drink (But Doesn't Smoke Any Smoke) At Hammerstein Ballroom

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Eric Church
Hammerstein Ballroom
Thursday, March 14

Better than: Watching some laptop soundscaper at SXSW and making an "I don't think Waylon woulda done it that way" joke to an unappreciative stranger.

Spending the past summer touring the country, preparing crowds for the massive star Toby Keith, Eric Church played understudy. His guitars could crunch, but never too loud; his fans could sing, but only with the knowledge that the Toby Keith lifers would be looking at them out of the sides of their eyes; and at the end of his set, this alpha male would have to defer to a former college linebacker who has enough "Drink in My Hand"s that his greatest-hits collection could reasonably expand to three discs.

Last night, however, all eyes fell on Church, who didn't walk onstage but who appeared from behind a cloud of smoke, then played a song called "Country Music Jesus" and summoned fire when the lyrics called for it.

Still, for all the onstage theatrics (think: guitars rigged to emit smoke and banner changes every 15 minutes) and sing-along anthems ("How 'Bout You" was a particular hit, thanks in part to the American flag that dropped from the rafters just before the opening guitar lick rang out), the set peaked nearly three-quarters of the way through, when Church dropped his backing band and played three songs—"Two Pink Lines, "Sinners Like Me," and "Love Your Love the Most"—alone and acoustic.

As strong as his anthems often are, Church's best work might actually be these more subtle, less gung-ho tunes that track losses of all kinds, from the personal ("Sinners Like Me," that middle number, finds its narrator and his brother visiting their grandfather's grave), to the geographical ("Carolina," Church's homage to old home), and cultural (among others, take "Homeboy," whose massive coda helped inject some life into the crowd as this sequence closed). Note also how that last track, clever enough to make its title work, covers all three as the story of friends growing apart becomes a requiem for a small town, working-class way of life—one of unloadin' bales and staying busy with a hammer and a nail—that is becoming increasingly untenable.

Last year, Church's lone misstep (practically unforgivable given that the show took place in New Jersey) was his failure to play his Boss tribute "Springsteen," a minor anthem about the memory of listening to large ones. Last night, as the set wound down, his encore moving from the last show's closer, "Smoke a Little Smoke," to the Sinners Like Me album cut "These Boots" (during which much of the crowd held their own boots high above their heads), those standing around me began to worry that he would make the same mistake twice.

Fortunately, as Church wandered towards the piano, it became clear that the crowd would get the song they'd been waiting for, its singer even changing the timestamp of the final chorus from "July Saturday" to "March Wednesday," an old but effective trick for creating a moment large enough to swallow the memory of the set's (and the song's) more melancholy turns. Later, as I walked to the subway, people were still singing it, and even after I had returned to Brooklyn, it was still stuck in my head, the perfect capstone for a night that in the end was about drinking a little drink, filling it up and throwing it down, and doing our best to cut the losses at beer money and brain cells.

Critical bias: Chief's got some great tunes, but is it really better than Carolina (to say nothing of Sinners Like Me)?

Random notebook dump: Opening with "Country Music Jesus" and following it up with "Guys Like Me" has to be one of the best musical inside jokes of 2012, right?

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