Taking a page from Bruce Springsteen, 'Mr. Misunderstood' artist dazzles with 38-song set at Brooklyn's Barclays Center
"I'm not tired!" Eric Church announced before the start of his encore during his marathon Friday night show at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. By the time Church made his hard-to-believe pronouncement, he had already performed 36 songs over the course of nearly three hours, downed several shots of Jack Daniel's, paid tribute to Merle Haggard, and led the sold-out crowd of 19,000 through a generous set spanning the singer's entire discography.
Just two weeks into his 2017 Holdin' My Own Tour, in which Church performs two full sets with an intermission and without any opening act, the 39-year-old singer was in top form and high spirits, joking with the crowd, signing autographs and alluding to his past decade of touring through the New York area.
Alongside a smattering of hits and a significant offering from his 2006 debut Sinners Like Me, Church performed the entirety of his 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood, often backed by light, nearly entirely acoustic arrangements from his six-piece band. Longtime backup vocalist Joanna Cotten has an increased role on the current tour, playing a big part in Misunderstood highlights like "Round Here Buzz" and "Kill a Word," the latter of which received one of the strongest responses of the night.
Church's current tour is an exercise in extreme minimalism, even for Church's typical no-nonsense standards. The singer has used various dramatic production elements in the past, from pyrotechnics to, during the Outsiders Tour, a 40-foot inflatable devil, but the Holdin’ My Own Tour has nothing of the sort. Indeed, Church went about his headlining set with a relaxed professionalism, as if he has nothing left to prove apart from the fact that he remains the most consistently engaging live arena act in country music.
On Friday, Church put together a 38-song set of live staples, fan favorites and concert rarities, playing nearly three hours and 20 minutes (including the intermission). Yet there were hardly any lulls in the expertly crafted show, largely due to the versatility of Church's band, which seamlessly shuffled through blue-eyed soul ("Like a Wrecking Ball"), greasy funk ("Chattanooga Lucy"), banjo-led bluegrass ("How 'Bout You") and anthemic ballads ("Knives of New Orleans"). He and the band even waded into gospel territory during the understated opener "Mistress Named Music," which culminated with a church choir joining Church onstage.
"No matter where you go in the world," the singer said at one point, "don't matter what the genre lines are: Music is music."
The emotional climax of the evening came during the U2 sound-alike dramatics of "Give Me Back My Hometown," which couldn't help but come across like a national elegy, as the New York crowd transformed the song into an aching sing-along. Eight songs later, Church introduced the main set closer "Springsteen" with some local flavor when he sang a portion of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind."
He then delivered a passionate, extended rendition of "Springsteen," his 2011 signature ode to the Boss, whose own live show serves as a template for Church's current tour in more ways than one. He concluded his performance of his Number One single by giving shout-outs to his favorite Bruce tunes: from the predictable ("Glory Days") to the impressively obscure ("Brothers Under the Bridge").
Solo acoustic segments are a staple of arena country shows, but most artists typically don't wait three hours to begin the most intimate portion of their concert. Not Church, who kicked off his encore with a loving rendition of "Holdin' My Own," before delivering the introspective "Sinners Like Me."
But the singer reserved his most intimate offering for the very end, closing the evening with an emotional version of "Those I've Loved," a deep cut off 2009's Carolina. "I'm just a country boy with a guitar," he sang, and the crowd roared louder than they had all night.