Even by Eric Church’s ever-expanding definition, Thursday night’s show under a full moon to open Nashville’s brand new Ascend Amphitheater was different. Maybe even a little weird, country music’s road warrior told fans.
“The thing about tonight is you get to see something you’ll never see again,” Church told the crowd, which pushed against the lip of the new venue’s stage and stretched up to the top of the new shed’s back walls. “Because after tonight we’re never doing this (bleep) again.”
Full of deep cuts, improvisational arrangements, a few lyric slips, a never-before-heard new song and lots of laughs, the set was reminiscent of the solo outing Church played earlier this year in Salt Lake City when most of his band fell ill due to a virus on The Outsiders World Tour.
Church built “The Outsider’s Joint” on stage, complete with bars and bartenders, friends and band members seated along his playing space, and a cowhide couch. He invited band members Jeff Cease, Joanna Cotten, Lee Hendricks, Jeff Hyde, Driver Williams and Craig Wright on stage individually Thursday night as accompaniment as he worked through some of his biggest hits and favorite album tracks.
“My heart rate is going up because I have no idea what the hell he’s doin’ next,” Cotton said. Church launched into a version of “Creepin’” with a long improvisational coda before telling the crowd: “It’s gonna get way weirder, I promise, man.”
After J Roddy Walston and The Business opened the night with a high-energy set, Church walked onto a darkened stage while working a solo jam on his guitar as he leapt into “Smoke a Little Smoke,” then played most recent No. 1 “Talladega.” After that, there was no set list or road map.
“Welcome to the first night ever at the Ascend Amphitheater here in Nashville,” Church told the crowd. “I‘ll be honest with you: I came out here with those first two songs as kind of my plan, and I don’t have one after this,” Church said. “This only works if you guys sing everything you know as loud as you can.”
Then Church told the first of several personal stories – about his early days on Music Row more than a decade ago. “I was thinking about this one as I was driving in,” Church said before playing “What I Almost Was.”
The singer-songwriter thanked the crowd for allowing him to play his songs simply, as they’d first been written, before the studio veneer was added. He then rewarded fans with a song he’d never played live before called “Three Year Old” about the wonderful travails of fatherhood. The song got its start on a fishing trip during which his son threw both his rod and reel and tackle box into the water. “I’m 38, and I never knew a fishing rod sinks faster than a tackle box,” Church joked.
The Tennessean noted of his performance, “Church wore his heart and his creativity on his sleeve Thursday night – a fitting, memorable way to open a new amphitheater in the heart of Music City.”
RollingStone.com adds, “The number of artists who can pull off the feat, standing vulnerable on a stage with just a guitar, is minuscule, and the number of radio-country artists who would even attempt it is likely smaller still. But Church rose to the occasion, proving that sometimes a simple “oh shit” can beat any bells, whistles or inflatable devils.”
As for Friday night, Church promises something completely different. Stay tuned.
Church’s pop-up store, The Outsider’s Joint, remains open through Saturday in East Nashville. The store’s first appearance during CMA Music Festival was a huge success with more than $20,000 going to Church’s Chief Cares Fund. The pop-up store offers official merchandise as well as These Boots by Lucchese, Church’s custom boot line usually only available to VIP ticketholders.
The pop-up shop is located at 218 South 11th Street in the 5 Points area of East Nashville across from the Bill Martin grocery store. Park at LP Field and receive a free ride to 5 Points (excluding tip) from JoyRide by calling (615) 285-9835 or use Uber code OUTSIDERS for $20 off your first ride. While there, a handful of local restaurants have special food and drink offers for those with Ascend Amphitheater tickets. Pop-up store hours are 12-6 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.