By Sarah Rodman
May 26, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: John Shearer

There are musicians who are ambitious with their live performances and then there is Eric Church.

Back in January, the country star embarked on his Double Down tour: playing two concerts — both clocking in at 3-plus hours with a 25-minute intermission– back to back in major cities. The shows, which feature varying setlists, boast no warm-up acts and are devoid of flashy bells and whistles save catwalks that extend onto the arena floor and massive video screens. The tour is just one singer-songwriter, his crack band, the songs from his six albums, including Desperate Man, one of 2018’s best, and some favorite covers.

EW took a double dip of the Double Down tour — Saturday, May 18 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the following Saturday for a record-breaking show at Nissan Stadium in Nashville — and came away doubly impressed at the stamina and conviction of Church and his band. The idea could be a simple exercise in hubris from an artist whose recording career started just a hair under 15 years ago. (Consider that there are performers who have been around three times as long who don’t play shows half this running time.) But Church inherently understands that a marathon like this is only as good as the journey it takes you on, that you can’t just play 30-plus songs, you have to mean it.

And boy, does he mean it. Sincerity may be a lost art in a world that views earnestness as corny but, at both the Staples Center and Nissan Stadium, the mule-kicking, chest-thumping Church vowed to give it his all and he more than delivered. (In both cases, he delivered more than some folks could reasonably stay for — babysitters have their limits no doubt — but a vast majority of the audiences stayed until the end or close to it. The bleed was understandably more significant at the stadium given the more complicated logistics of escape.) On both nights he nimbly oscillated between boot-stomping honky-tonk drinking songs, meditative mid-tempo numbers reflecting on simple truths — none better than the hard-won wisdom of “Some of It” — and cranked up the volume for hard-rock laced barn burners with sequencing that kept the momentum steady but built-in breathers for both himself and the audiences.

The country stars fans have been dubbed the Church Choir and they did their part singing along to hits like “Talledega,” “Springsteen” and “Drink in My Hand,” but also raising their voices for older and deeper cuts including the waltz-time charmer “Sinners Like Me” and the defiantly celebratory concert staple “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.” Church was assuredly preaching to the Choir at both shows, but these were no typical sermons. Instead, they implicitly and explicitly reinforced the message that music can heal, transport, even save. It was there in the songs and artists name-checked in “Record Year” and “Hippie Radio” and the end-of-the-first-set medley that saw Church gleefully covering everyone from Def Leppard to Neil Diamond. And the effect could be seen and felt on both nights in go-for-broke performances that would be enough to convert anyone to the concept and remind its already faithful adherents of the transformative power of a great song, or in Church’s case over 30 of them in a show that, in Nashville, must have broken some kind of length record as well as that attendance figure, clocking in at over 3 and a half hours. (Other fun facts: It was Church’s first stadium headline gig and he was the first artist to headline said stadium solo, sans opening act. If he was nervous, it didn’t show.)

Herewith a few thoughts about the two Double Down tour dates we saw.

A tale of two cities

Both Los Angeles and Nashville are industry cities famous for cross-armed concert-goers looking to be impressed. There was no such aloofness on either side of the stage at Church’s shows. Several songs benefitted from the comparatively intimate confines of the Staples Center–including the contemplative “Kill a Word” — while others blossomed in the wide open spaces of the stadium, notably the cinematic sweep of “Talledega” and that cross-genre medley which included a singalong of “Sweet Caroline” that was so loud they could probably hear it at Fenway Park. It was also interesting to note regional reactions. For instance “Higher Wire” got a much bigger overall response in Nashville than L.A., while the beseeching melancholy of “Homeboy” seemed to strike a deeper vein at the Staples Center. Songs that seared no matter the venue included the rattlesnake shake of “Chattanooga Lucy,” the lyrical “Mr. Misunderstood,” with its increasingly urgent tempo, the soaring “whoa-ohs” of “Give Me Back My Hometown,” and the power chord thrills of “That’s Damn Rock & Roll.” Unsurprisingly, a sea of boots were held aloft in both places for the ode to the passage of time via footwear “These Boots.” (Given that temperatures were in the 90s in Nashville, that meant a real dedication to this bit for a lot of people. The guy holding aloft a Puma gets points for participation.) Although Church employed two side ramps extending to the 50-yard line, the Nashville show probably could’ve been enhanced by one extended further into the center of the crowd.

Variations on a theme

The setlist in Nashville holds the edge simply by virtue of the fact that it featured a handful more songs including “Carolina” and “Keep On.” But it was the Los Angeles audience that was treated to Church’s tale of a debauched day off leading into “Jack Daniels” and back-up vocalist Joanna Cotten’s live wire rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s version of Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” Speaking of whom…

Picking Cotten

Credit: John Shearer

It’s possible that the North Carolina native’s single smartest decision has nothing to do with donning aviator shades and everything to do with hiring Cotten to bolster his sound. The entire band is drum tight but Cotten is a gale force wind of soul and fire and gives as good as she gets– Church might agree that she sometimes even gives better than she gets– on all the songs on which she is featured. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” was a particular high point with the Memphis native tenaciously holding onto notes like a winner to a lottery ticket. And when she goes toe-to-toe with her boss on “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” it’s hard not to be irritated at whatever record industry powers-that-be shelved the one album she made.

Record Year

Credit: John Shearer

It’s not just a song title anymore, now the phrase is one for the books as Church played to 56,521 fans, breaking the stadium record previously set by Taylor Swift on her Reputation Tour in 2018. Voting bodies of country music awards shows: where’s this guy’s Entertainer of the Year trophy, already?

The Double Down tour resumes in June in Washington and runs through November.

Video enhances the radio star

Church also took the opportunity of the massive platform to debut his new video for the song “Some of It.” The clip, which finds, the singer in the slammer — possibly for making bootleg vinyl in his previous video for “Desperate Man”– played on the video screens at the stadium prior to the show.

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