The beer stands were mobbed and the guitars cranked during Eric Church’s headline show at the Wolstein Center on Friday.
Church is a country-rocker from North Carolina with a wide outlaw streak and a deft lyrical touch that’s granted him a bit of airplay despite a decidedly un-Nashville bent. It also explains the wells of humanity around the kegs after Wolstein quickly sold out of bottles. Don’t they know country fans like their beer?
Anyone wondering whatever happened to the power ballad need look no further than opener Brantley Gilbert. Outlaw country has always carried a strong dose of southern-fried rawk, and in Gilbert’s hands tips toward ‘80s metal (given greater twang) and lights-down sentimentality with cellphones replacing the aloft lighter.
It’s part and parcel of a heartland anthemic that runs through his country-flavored rock sound.
Church’s lyricism is less clumsy but shares a similar genuflection toward the Boss. Indeed, one of Church’s songs is named after the Asbury Park poet.
Coming out to “Country Music Jesus,” off his chart-topping third album, Chief, Church looked a little like a throwback gas station attendant in his blue jeans, black T, ballcap, and dark sunglasses.
He pledged his allegiance to “the Hag,” complained how Jack Daniels kicked his ass, and waited interminably for “Two Pink Lines,” an example of his willingness to push his subject beyond country’s safe confines.
Church took the stage mid-set with just an acoustic for the latter track and three other songs before the band returned. He’s a strong enough lyricist that his songs can succeed without the fire cannons or the smoke machines that worked overtime on his encore reefer ode “Smoke a Lil Smoke.”
That said, his band rocked, blending traditional country instrumentation (banjo, mandolin, pedal steel) with ‘70s country-boogie and flashes of seriously shredding hammer-on leads.
They gave fans their money worth with nearly a 25-minute encore, capping a nearly 90-minute performance. Church is a strong writer capable of clever turns (“She Got the Rock [and I’m Getting Stoned]”) while retaining his blue-collar appeal and that bodes well for him down the road. —Chris Parker