Everybody who loves live music has a bucket list of artists they want to see. The list can be in your head or even a physical list. And usually many of those artists can sit on a list for years. We all know the reasons that can come up: not enough time, money, artist never coming to your city, scheduling conflicts, etc. So every time you miss out and wait just a little longer, the anticipation just builds even more towards the day you finally cross that artist off that list. Eric Church is one of those artists who sat near the very top of my list for years.
There have been various reasons why I hadn’t seen him yet. But mainly because he usually only comes to Cleveland when he passes through my home state of Ohio and driving to Cleveland has always been hours away for me. So when I saw he was coming through Columbus finally, I had to snag a ticket. Especially coming off the heels of what I found to be a great triple album in Heart & Soul (an album that’s a lock for my year-end list). With all these years of anticipation combined with a great new album, it prompted to me spend more money than I ever had for a concert ticket. I decided to grab a pit ticket so I could be right up next to the action. After going 95% of 2020 and most of 2021 without live music, I decided I earned this reward.
So the day I finally cross Eric Church off my bucket list arrives and I’m actually a bit nervous as I make my short drive to Nationwide Arena. Usually I’m not nervous going to a concert, but I know why I am for this one. For one, it’s that anticipation I hit on above. The more the anticipation builds, the higher the expectations can get. What if I’m disappointed? What if I feel like I wasted my money spending so much for this ticket? And then the other aspect on my mind: this being an arena show. My rule with them is I only do one per year for a few reasons: 1) The cost and 2) Arena shows lack the energy and vibe I enjoy at concerts that I feel like I almost always get at smaller, more intimate venues. It’s not that I’ve never had a bad experience at an arena show, but it just lacks that certain feeling of passionate exuberance that you can only get at a great concert. An arena show has never came close to being my favorite show from top to bottom.
After finding a spot in a parking garage, I start to make my walk to Nationwide Arena. This was actually my second time I’ve been here, as I had previously saw Willie Nelson here on the Outlaw Country Festival tour a few years earlier. It was a pretty good show, but it was nowhere near full capacity. As I approach the front of the arena, I quickly realize how many more people are going to be at this concert compared to the Nelson one. There were hordes and hordes of people lined up to get into the arena and an almost equally long line to the Church merchandise tent. Seeing this many people floored me! Once I get inside and make my way to the floor, I’m even more awestruck as I look around me and watch the entire place fill to near full capacity. Nationwide Arena can hold up to 20,000 people, so this is the biggest show I’ve ever been to so far in my life.
Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t point out there’s a whole global pandemic happening right now and I’m in an arena full of around 19,000 or so people. I will say the arena did require masks and there’s currently an ongoing indoor mask mandate in Columbus itself. All the staff at Nationwide Arena also wore masks. And then maybe 5% of the audience (if even that), including myself, wore masks. You can’t blame the arena for not being able to properly enforce this rule on several thousand people. This is especially the case when a lot of them are drinking too. Shout out to the guy who spilled his beer right next to me before the show even started. It somehow didn’t splash me though and I’ll give him some credit for actually seeking out a staff member to help mop up the mess. The same can’t be said of another person later who also spilled their beer near me, but I was in the splash zone this time. See the contrasts between crowds I was alluding to in my Japanese Breakfast post? Indie rock crowds and country crowds clearly have some differing opinions on wearing masks and beer consumption at concerts.
And one more thought on drinking beer at concerts. I love a cold beer, granted I don’t like to drink several rounds of them. But I totally understand how much a cold beer can hit the spot, especially when you’re at a concert. However, I don’t understand people who drink them excessively at concerts. For one you have to stand in a long line several times throughout the show every time you get a drink and on top of that you have to make several trips to the bathroom. To me that’s a ton of lost value because you’re missing out on so much music. I guess the point of a concert for me is to see the music, not get plastered. I paid a ticket for a show. I don’t mean to come off as lecturing on a soapbox here, but I just don’t understand why you would pay money for a ticket (a lot of money for the pit area) only to miss half the show due to being in line for beer and the bathroom. It just feels like the whole purpose of going to the concert is defeated, but I digress…
I quickly forget about all these shenanigans. Because the arena lights have gone out and they’ve been replaced by colorful, flashing lights and smoke machines filling the whole place. Eric Church, Joanna Cotten and his band make their grand entrance to the stage. And once in their place, Church begins to play the opening notes to “Through My Ray-Bans.” The light, mystical strings that open the song begin to fill the arena. “Everybody’s got their arms around/Everybody else’s shoulders. Guardin’ against the world outside/Like an army of Friday night soldiers. The battle wages tomorrow/But tonight you don’t give a damn. Wish you could stay the way I see you through my Ray-Bans.” The words ring so strong and they’re so appropriate for a tour dubbed The Gather Again Tour. While there were no arms around shoulders, at least in my section, here we were all together again and taking in music together. In a little moment like this you just take it in and appreciate it for what it is. Church set the tone perfectly by opening with this song. At the end of the song he pumps his fist and he’s fired up. He’s clearly ready to deliver us a kick-ass show.
Then he and his band blister their way through “Desperate Man” and “Stick That in Your Country Song.” The former song feels like a nice “step up” in energy and it’s also one of my favorites from Church. It’s also a ton of fun to sing along with live, especially the “doo doo doo” part. The latter song was just as energizing in person as I expected it to be, as you could just feel the electricity in the room go to a fever pitch. A few songs in I’m starting to really appreciate the stage set up, as it’s set “in the round.” In other words, the stage is set right in the center of the arena and the band and Church is able to constantly move around the stage and play in front of every part of it. By doing this everybody, no matter where you were seated, got a great glimpse of everyone on stage throughout the night. Even the drummer and piano players were remote controlled from side to side, which I thought was cool! And for “Stick That in Your Country Song” my side got our first up close glimpse of Joanna Cotten, whose voice is even more incredible to hear live. She’s also got fantastic stage presence, as you immediately are drawn in by her performance. I knew this before even going to the show, but it only reaffirmed for me seeing Cotten live: Eric Church’s music wouldn’t be as good without her presence. She is the Bernie Taupin to Church’s Elton John.
“Cold One” is next and the funky, bouncy melody had all of us…well bouncing along with it! It’s just such a fun song and shows off Church’s quirkier songwriting side. Cotten shines again on “Heart on Fire” and both her and Church are absolute charisma volcanoes at this moment. Needless to say I’m pretty much matching their energy at this point. I’m just hooked to every aspect of this concert performance, singing along at the top of my lungs to everything and moving around, screaming at the end of each song. It can’t get better than this! Then Church decides to slow it down and plays “Mr. Misunderstood.” So now I’m just completely mesmerized, as one of my all-time favorite songs from him plays. It’s because I connect so deeply with the lyrics because at one point I was that kid in the back of the class with nerdy tendencies who’s interest weren’t considered cool. And I love the soft, defiant heartfelt nature of the beginning of the song that descends into a frenetic, out of control display of infectious passion at the end. I don’t think there’s a song for me that better displays an overwhelming love and passion towards something, but especially music, like this one.
I think I tried losing my voice when I was singing along with “Break It Kind of Guy,” as I’m sucker for this type of country soul. Cotten of course plays to this song perfectly with her style and Church himself is better than you think when he goes for those big high notes. After singing my heart out I’m glad Church slows it down for the next few songs, as I imagine I’m not the only one needing a breather. Church himself though is outdoing us all, as he would constantly move around throughout the whole show with unceasing end. His stamina and unrelenting drive absolutely blew me away. It reminded me of a moment on his first live album where he says he’s going to give the audience everything he’s got, but we gotta give it back too (I’m pretty sure he says this at one point during this show too). And we’re trying! But it’s hard to keep up with such a spitfire of a performer! You have a lot of fun trying to keep up though.
I have to admit I was really shocked when the crowd lost their shit with “Round Here Buzz,” as I didn’t think this would be such a crowd pleaser. But everybody was singing along to every single word of it. “How ‘bout You” did not surprise me with how much it fired up the crowd though, as pretty much every Church fan knows this one. While I wouldn’t put it among my top ten from him, damn is it catchy. Hearing those pounding drums pulsate throughout, grabbing hold of you and refusing to let go, makes this song so ideal for the live setting. It feels like Church’s band really got to show off on this song, as they’re quite impressive themselves. Their playing is constantly on point, they’re constantly matching the energy of Church and Cotten, interacting frequently with the crowd; you couldn’t ask for more from them.
“Smoke a Little Smoke” follows this and this song always brings a little grin to my face when I hear it. Not because it’s a song about smoking weed, but it’s the song that made me first take notice of Church. It’s funny how some of my absolute favorite artists at first made me feel unsure of what to make of them. Amongst the artists I had this reaction with were Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson and Eric Church. I remember the first time I heard “Smoke a Little Smoke” on the radio. I really wasn’t sure what to think. I just thought to myself that this was so different than what I’m used to hearing. Then I would hear it more and I slowly would gravitate towards it and hope this song would play when I tuned into a country station. It often filled my Pontiac Grand-Am as I made my trips to and from class in high school. Ain’t it funny how a melody sounds like a memory?
Now “These Boots” I know has been one of the crowd favorites for several years at Church shows. But I don’t think I was prepared for the sight of thousands of people holding a boot in the air. I’m not sure I’ll see this sight again either. Well no actually I will because I know I’m going to another Church show someday. Also during this song Church took the time to sign several of these boots and again I was surprised at the amount of love Church shown the fans. Now I’m not surprised from the perspective of Church himself, since he’s always put the fans first, from giving Mr. Misunderstood to them before anybody else to the wars he’s waged against ticket scalpers. I’m surprised from the perspective of expectations for such a big star and headlining act. Most of them don’t do these types of things at concerts and you don’t expect this from stars. Most star artists make you pay for a meet and greet to get an autograph. But I guess Church is no ordinary star.
The unordinary nature of Church and his live shows is further showcased as he wraps up the first set with “Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones.” The first set. That was just the first set! Most artists would have declared this enough for a headlining act and that would have been the end of the concert. But all of that and it was just the first half. I don’t know of any other artists who do concerts like this, but I wish more had this same attitude as Church. Granted there are no openers for Church of course. It’s been like that now for years at his concerts. Sturgill Simpson and Marty Stuart & his Fabulous Superlatives are the only other acts I’ve seen go without an opener and they put on incredible shows too.
I elect to stay right where I’m at during this break and stretch my legs and arms. I had found a good spot, so why leave, especially when everybody is out in the concourse? And I had decided I’m waiting until after the show to hit the merch stand, as I didn’t want to hold stuff while in a crowded pit. This also gave me time to chat with the guy next to me (no, not the beer spiller from earlier), as we both discussed how much we loved this show. It was his first time at an Eric Church concert too. We got to talking about music and what we did for a living and it’s always interesting to learn about others. He said his favorite show he had ever seen was Garth Brooks. It’s not a surprising answer, as Garth has been hailed by so many as a fantastic live performer. He asked me what my favorite concert I’ve ever seen and I can never pick one. It’s always like five different ones. I’ve seen a lot of great shows thankfully. Perhaps I’m just overwhelmed by the amount of choices, I guess? As the countdown clock to set two winds down and before we end our conversation, I ask him about the blanket around his neck and he says he hopes to have Church touch it at some point. I wished him luck and hoped he would get his wish. Unfortunately he wouldn’t as I later saw him retreat from towards the front of the guardrails with a disappointed look on his face. Maybe, next time. But I’m focused on the second set, as most of the people have filed back in at this point and the countdown clock has hit zero. Right on cue, Church and his band (clad in new attire) come back out through the crowd to play us some more songs.
Church opens the second set with two songs I absolutely love from Heart: “Heart of the Night” and “Russian Roulette.” The rock opera-like nature of the former always gets my heart pumping. And the latter song is one of Church’s finest heartbreak songs, as it has that same appeal that “Record Year” has of using music as heartbreak medicine. I like how Church emulates the blasts from the radio speakers when he sings, “Gettin’ shot through the speakers both left and right in stereo” too, as that’s my reaction when I hear it. The “money shot” of the song of course is the bridge where it slows down and Church softly croons “I need a melody without a memory, take me where I’ve never been,” followed by the crashing of the drums and guitar and the song thrillingly building to it’s conclusion. I couldn’t ask for more in the melody department. What made this song performance even better was Church was front and center for me during it.
The high energy just continues to ramble along with “Drink in My Hand,” “Talladega” and “Chattanooga Lucy.” The biggest reaction from the crowd all night was to “Talladega,” as they gleefully waved their checkered flags and loudly sang along to it. I enjoy the song too, but I always found it to be a slightly less good version of “Springsteen.” Maybe it’s the NASCAR imagery that further enhances it in several listeners’ minds? I was pleasantly surprised to hear “Chattanooga Lucy,” as I think it’s an absolute blast of a song that’s impossible not to want to move along with. In fact after looking on setlist.fm, I was even more surprised to see Mr. Misunderstood get the most songs on the set list from a single album. Not that I’m complaining of course because it’s his best album. A few songs later he plays a few more off the album in “Mistress Named Music,” “Knives of New Orleans” and “Mixed Drinks About Feelings.” You can’t go wrong with any of these songs. I love the raw, soulfulness of “Mistress Named Music.” Cotten absolutely kills Susan Tedeschi’s part in “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” and appropriately got loud applauses for it. And then you have “Knives of New Orleans,” which is a top five Church song for me. I’m once again thankful for my great luck, as Church plays this song directly in front of me. The passion of the brilliant lyrics shines through just as well live as they do on the record. It just can’t get better than this!
I did not expect to enjoy “Creepin’” so much in a live setting. I’ve always found it to be a fun song, but it’s not one of the first songs I reach for when it comes to Church. But man does it rip in concert and after hearing it in this setting I have another level of appreciation for it. It was yet another moment where Church worked the crowd up into an absolute flurry of excitement. We were then treated to the live debut of “Look Good and You Know It,” which I was thrilled to hear with it being one of my favorites on Soul. I hope Church continues to do more songs in this vein, as I think he has the chops to pull them off quite well with the swaggering charisma he can display. And that was well on display here.
Church next dips into back-to-back songs from The Outsiders in “Give Me Back My Hometown” and “That’s Damn Rock & Roll.” Now if you’ve been really following me for a while, you know I heavily criticized this album when it first released. But then I started to warm up to a few songs, but still for years never went back to give it a fair revisit. Well after hearing these two songs live and seeing this concert, it made me go back and give it a fair revisit. I’ve done a complete 180 on it and I think it’s amongst Church’s best. But I’ll maybe expand upon this more in another post. For now I’ll focus on these two songs. With the first song, I got hung up on the Pizza Hut line being a bit odd and overlooked the song’s important message about gentrification and losing what makes something special. And the latter song I’ve actually really enjoyed for a few years now. Dare I say it’s one of the most overlooked songs in Church’s discography, as I love the spoken word that sets it up and the interplay between Church and Cotten on vocals brings out the absolute best in them. All of us got treated this especially in this performance, as they went toe to toe on the mic, with Cotten of course winning because there are very few in country music with a powerful enough voice to challenge her.
The show closes on a quite powerful three song run, starting with Church’s biggest hit, “Springsteen.” There’s a reason this song is on a lot of the best modern country songs lists. Nostalgia is a theme well covered in country music, but most of the songs in this vein fail to give it the proper depth it can convey. But “Springsteen” is able to capture this magical feeling through a perfect combination of first descriptive lyrics, the kind one thinks of when indulging in nostalgia, but not too specific to where people aren’t able to connect. Its breezy and accessible, yet can connect on a deeper level. And then there’s the other half of the combo, which is the sweet yet melancholy melody largely invoked by the soft keys of the piano that mainly flutter in the chorus. Hearing such a special song like this live, it’s impossible to describe the butterflies that come up in your stomach. Church also took time in bridge of the song to spend some time talking to the crowd, which I realized afterwards was quite similar to the speech he gave during “Springsteen” on his first live record. But that doesn’t mean this rehearsed speech didn’t still resonate with us in the crowd. Melodies do get connected with memories and we did make a memory with the melodies we heard that night.
“Record Year” was next and I remember hoping like crazy when this song was released that it would somehow be a hit. It deserved to be a hit, yet I was so skeptical it would ever take off. And then it became Church’s second biggest hit. I was never happier to be proven wrong. I’ve mentioned most of my top five Church songs throughout this post and they all take turns being my favorite, depending on when you ask me. But this is most often my #1. The overcoming heartbreak arch, indulging in spinning vinyl records, the jaunty melody, the easy to sing along with lyrics, references to great albums and artists; this song checks off every box of things I enjoy in a song from Eric Church or really any song. But I have a new memory I’ll think of when I hear this song thanks to seeing Church perform it live. During the bridge, Church takes to the audience to sign and point out the record art people are holding up throughout the audience. And he stops at one point to spend a bit more time with a fan who happens to be holding up Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. That’s when you see the inner music nerd in Church pop right out, as a smile breaks across his face and he starts reading the notes on the back of it. For a brief second it seemed like he was going to stand there and read all of the stuff on the back of the album, only to immediately realize, “Oh yeah I’m in the middle of performing in front of 19,000 people. I better sign this and move along.” From one music nerd to another, I would have totally been cool if Church decided to just spend some time reading the rest of it. But it’s a little moment that will always stick with me.
The closing song is surprisingly “Holdin’ My Own.” I suppose it was an appropriate goodbye song to the audience, as it allowed me to reflect on the show I had just seen. Although there was also a part of me that thought this show might keep going somehow, even though it was well beyond the length I thought it would be. This though was the final song, as Church played himself and his band out to conclude the night.
I’ve never been so exhausted in every way after seeing a concert. But in the best way possible, if that makes sense! And I never saw the scene I did leaving a show either. As we were making our way up the stairs from the floor, water is pouring down from the ceiling. What the hell is going on? We make our way up further and there’s even more water pouring down from the ceiling upstairs. It’s as if a rainstorm had invaded the arena. In reality, so many drunks had hit the bathrooms that they overloaded the pipes. But my story is Eric Church rocked Nationwide Arena so hard that night that he made it rain. One thing that is quite certain: after seeing Eric Church live, I can say with the utmost confidence that he is one of the greatest artists and live performers of the modern generation in not just country music, but across all music.
I was still exhausted when I woke up the next day. A concert had never kicked my ass like this one did. Over the next few days I excitedly told my friends and family about the experience. And it made me reflect even more on the experience. When one of my friends asked me about it again, I casually said it was the best concert I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe it at first, but I knew it was true. I now have an all-time favorite concert I can point to. The best concert I’ve ever seen was Eric Church on September 18, 2021 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.