It’s January 31, 2015 and Eric Church is set to play a full-band arena concert in Salt Lake City. The country music star is in the middle of a tour to support The Outsiders, his eclectic, prog-metal-influenced album from the year before. Normally, he and his band tear through three-hour setlists, spanning his entire career and wavering from all-out rock ‘n’ roll to sparse acoustic country ballads. Tonight, though, there’s a problem: the tour’s been struck with stomach flu and the entire band is out of commission. So is the crew. Just about any artist would cut losses, cancel the show, and try to reschedule for later.
But not Eric Church.
“There’s nobody left,” Church announced to the crowd, explaining why there were no other band members onstage and why the tour’s usual light-and-video setup was nowhere to be seen. “It’s just me. I’m going to give you everything I got.”
“I’m going to give you everything I got” is a pretty apt mission statement for Church’s approach to live music. That night in early 2015, he played a 19-song acoustic set, in an arena, with no one onstage but himself. A few healthy or semi-healthy band members managed to take the stage mid-set for a take on the barnstorming “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” but for the most part, Church was the last man standing, and he played like he might never get to play a show again.
Of course, Church would get to play another show. And then another. And then another after that. In the days following the now-legendary Salt Lake City performance, Church’s band and crew recovered and The Outsiders Tour returned to its usual big-production configuration. Church even scheduled a make-up date for the Salt Lake City show, coming back with the full band on Memorial Day and honoring the tickets from the original show for any attendees who still wanted to see the tour as it had originally been intended. He effectively gave his Utah fans two shows for the price of one.
As fans of live music, we love stories like this one. We love hearing about artists who respect the sanctity of the concert experience. We love artists who will always strive to give fans their money’s worth—even when the whole damn band is collectively keeling over the tour bus toilet. [Editor’s Note: The recent news of Church cancelling nearly 25,000 tickets from scalpers is another great example of his commitment to live music and his fans]. Given who Church’s chief influence is, though, it’s not surprising that he’s so staunchly committed to giving his fans nothing less than the best concertgoing experience they’ve ever seen. In the live music world, at least, Church is the heir apparent to the one and only Bruce Springsteen.
At the aforementioned Salt Lake City show, Church closed out the concert with a cover of Bruce’s “Thunder Road” before segueing into his signature song: the fittingly titled “Springsteen.” A number one country hit from the 2011 album Chief, “Springsteen” doesn’t sound like a live showstopper. It’s a wistful mid-tempo ballad, a nostalgic look back at a long-ago summertime romance and the records that were playing in the car when it was happening. “Funny how a melody sounds like a memory/Like a soundtrack to a July Saturday night: Springsteen.”
In concert, Church almost always positions “Springsteen” as the main set closer. It’s not the biggest rock song in his catalog, not the song most likely to get people moving. That title probably belongs to the raucous “Drink in My Hand,” also from Chief. But “Springsteen” is the only fitting main set closer for a guy like Church, not because it’s his biggest hit, but because it illustrates perfectly what he tries to do when he takes the stage every night.
When I saw Bruce Springsteen on The River Tour last February, he played a 35-song set, including all 20 songs from the 1980 double LP The River. It was and is the longest show I’ve ever seen—but then again, Springsteen’s marathon setlists are the stuff of legends. Even at 67 years old, Bruce remains committed to giving his fans everything he’s got, night after night and show after show. On September 7th, 2016, Springsteen played for four hours and three minutes at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. For now, it’s the longest show he’s ever played on United States soil. He only played 34 songs, but many of his longer songs—“Jungleland,” “New York City Serenade,” “Incident on 57th Street,” “Thundercrack,”—were in the setlist.
Eric Church will probably never rival Springsteen as far as number of minutes onstage. Beyond the two-part “Devil, Devil” from The Outsiders—which features an extensive spoken-word section—the longest song in Church’s catalog clocks in at 5:22. Collectively, Church’s five studio albums hold three hours and 50 minutes of music. At some point he’d just run out of songs to play, something that could never happen to a guy as prolific as The Boss.
However, even if he doesn’t have a “Jungleland” or an “Incident” in his back pocket (yet, at least), Church is clearly a disciple of Springsteen’s touring philosophy. Bruce’s tours rarely feature an opening act, leaving the whole evening for The Boss and his E Street Band to give fans more of what they really came to see. Church’s current tour—the Holdin’ My Own Tour, in support of his 2015 record Mr. Misunderstood—also features no opener. Bruce shows, as already discussed, frequently go on for three hours and sometimes even push to four. In January, Rolling Stone published a report on Church’s sold-out show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which featured 38 songs and stretched on for three hours and 20 minutes. And while Church doesn’t switch up the setlist quite as much as The Boss does, the career-spanning nature of his concerts makes it clear that he’s willing to pull out just about any song in his catalog depending on the night. From the arena rock of “Give Me Back My Hometown” to the metal surge of “The Outsiders,” all the way to reflective acoustic heartbreakers like “Those I’ve Loved,” Church’s shows offer a little bit of everything.
The past decade has seen multiple artists anointed as the “new Springsteen.” The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon is the most obvious candidate, but other artists and bands—from The Hold Steady to Jason Isbell to The Killers—have been repeatedly compared to Bruce as well. Sonically, Eric Church doesn’t fit the template quite as well as any of them. “Springsteen” is a lovely tune, but it doesn’t actually sound like Bruce. And while Mr. Misunderstood had more than a little bit of The River and Nebraska in its DNA, it was still absolutely a country album.
But in the category of live music, there is no modern artist that mirrors Bruce’s passionate, hard-working intensity quite like Church. “I’m not tired!” Church told the audience at his Barclays Center show in January, right before kicking into the encore. For the 39-year-old Church, that kind of endurance is perhaps a bit less impressive than it is coming from a guy who is pushing 70. It doesn’t matter, though: you can count on one hand the number of artists that are willing and able to play three-hour-plus show in this day and age, and it’s comforting to have a guy like Eric Church keeping the tradition alive.