With a backdrop of the ol' red, white and blue and a front line of four — count 'em, four — guitarists fortifying his very electric music, Eric Church painted a musical portrait Friday night that initially could have been pulled out of any other country concert at Rupp Arena. But instead of completing the scene with some generic, jingoistic anthem, Church churned out a tune called Pledge Allegiance to the Hag that honored the great country traditionalist Merle Haggard.
Of course, the music, the performance — shoot, the entire evening — operated a few dozen light years away from country music tradition. Bolstered by metal-singed guitar crunch and a tireless performance, Church's set had more in common with a Slayer concert than vintage or even contemporary country.
There was something refreshingly unapologetic about the approach, too. The show seemed geared clearly toward the rowdy, Hank Williams, Jr. set. And judging by the turnout, it seemed to hit the mark. Attendance topped 13,000 — an almost unheard of figure for a young artist on his first headlining arena tour. But Church's performance was vastly heavier, tighter and more streamlined than a Williams outing.
The show-opening Country Music Jesus was typical of the approach. It began with Church alone onstage, strumming a dark, folksy melody before his band's chunky, thunderous support kicked in. Then, just to assure you this was indeed no Williams concert, flames came from the stage floor.
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Church clearly sees country as something more abrupt and forceful yet still orderly. That explained the metal-friendly I'm Getting Stoned and the beefier, guitar-centric How 'Bout That. Only mid-tempo semi-ballads like Carolina and Hungover and Hard Up even remotely slowed the volume and pace.
Show-opener Blackberry Smoke opted for a very different electric route. In looks and sound, the Georgia ensemble seemed to have stepped directly out of the early '70s. Its music favored blues jams, recalling the heyday of Southern mainstay The Allman Brothers Band. Not surprisingly, a verse of the Allman hit Midnight Rider was inserted into the original Sleeping Dog Lie.
In another welcome switch from most modern country shows where acts pay heed to "influences" that go no deeper than classic rock radio, the decidedly rockish Blackberry Smoke showcased its roots by going purely country, as in a snippet of the Willie Nelson staple Whiskey River that neatly prefaced Son of the Bourbon.
Middle act Brantley Gilbert was odd man out. Known more as a writer than a stage artist — he penned the Jason Aldean hits My Kinda Party and Dirt Road Anthem, both of which were performed — Gilbert piloted a hard rock-country sound that often seemed contrived. The big problem? The singing. Gilbert came off as a tepid vocalist who never came close to matching his band's bravado.
A footnote: this was the first country show in recent memory in which none of the acts included fiddle or pedal steel guitar in their instrumental lineups. Given how so many Nashville artists today utilize these instruments as little more than ornamental devices, this wasn't much of a loss. This was a night where arena-size guitar rock, regardless of the country billing, clearly ruled.