Eric Church is a talented fellow. Tuesday night at the Verizon Center in Washington, the country superstar showed off a terrific tenor voice, a charismatic stage presence, and a crackerjack Southern-rock band. The only question is to what use he'll put those gifts.
The evidence on last year's "The Outsiders" album and Tuesday's concert both revealed a mixed message: There were moments when he defied the prevailing bro-country formula with rootsy hillbilly rock and knotty stories. There were moments when he shamelessly sold out to the formula with generic beer-drinking anthems. And there were moments when he seemed to do both at the same time.
Tall and trim in a black T-shirt, aviator shades, and brown stubble, Church prowled the stage and the two flanking runways that thrust out into the crowd. He began the show with the title track from the latest album, an anthemic declaration that he and his friends are "the outsiders," the ones conventional society fears. And how do they express this rebellion? By getting stoned and burning rubber. The '80s hard-rock arrangement was as toothless and generic as the sentiments.
But the next song, 'Creepin',' opened with a bluesy solo on National Steel guitar, a funky rhythm, and lyrics about the desire for a long-gone woman growing "like ivy crawling up a hickory tree." Back and forth it went all night, formulaic hot-country hits such as 'Guys Like Me' and 'Drink in My Hand' followed by a genuinely original songs such as 'Dark Side' and 'Homeboy.' 'Cold One' was a smart song whose title referred both to an ex-lover and the beverage to get over her. 'Give Me Back My Hometown,' Church's best composition, attributes his alienation from his old stomping grounds to an ex-lover but hints at something deeper about American culture.
Sometimes the formulaic and original got combined, as when a twangy, semi-string-band number was subverted by pandering lyrics about 'Jack Daniels.' His fans tossed miniature whiskey bottles on stage. Church ends nearly every concert with his first No. 1 country single, 'Springsteen,' and you can tell he's pulled in the direction of his adolescent hero, but he's pulled in the Garth Brooks direction too.
You have to admire Church, though, for the courage of his choice of an opening act. He could have picked any young star in Nashville, but instead he chose the Drive-By Truckers, an act that has never had a Billboard-charting single. The quintet may well be the greatest rock 'n' roll band of this new millennium (who else has a 21st-century catalog to match?) and in a short, 45-minute set, they demonstrated the power of uncompromised Southern rock.
Co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley may not sing as well as Church, but they are much stronger writers, and they fleshed out the obscured implications of Church's 'Give Me Back My Hometown' with Southern Gothic tales about land ownership in 'Uncle Frank' and 'Sink Hole.' And when Hood started waving his arms and preaching during 'Let There Be Rock,' the contradictions and challenges of being a teenage rock 'n' roll fan were far sharper than in 'Springsteen.'