Like Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, country superstar Eric Church does things his own way.
Last year, he released two albums in one month – ‘Heart’ and ‘Soul’ – and sent his fan club members a third album, ‘&’.
This spring, he canceled a sold-out concert in San Antonio just so he could attend the North Carolina-Duke Final Four basketball game. (He’s from North Carolina.)
On Saturday, he invited Morgan Wallen, country music persona non grata in 2021, to join him at U.S. Bank Stadium, one of only two stadium gigs on Church’s 2022 itinerary.
Last year, Wallen was banned from radio, concerts and award shows after he was caught on camera uttering a racial slur. Nonetheless, he ended up with the best-selling project of 2021, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” even outselling Adele’s “30.”
After a long ostracization, Wallen hit the road again this year, mostly headlining weekend gigs. No gig was bigger, however, than joining Church’s hoedown stadium billed as “One Hell of a Night”.
“I’ve played 35 shows this year. I’m more nervous for this one than all of them together,” said Wallen, 29, who is single-handedly bringing the mullet back. He later explained that the first major concert he attended was at Church in 2014.
The sold-out Minneapolis crowd of 51,117 shouted their encouragement to Wallen.
Was the crowd amplified because everyone seems to like a bad boy? (The Outcast had other flaws, including being arrested for disorderly conduct outside Kid Rock’s bar in Nashville and being fired from “Saturday Night Live” for failing to follow COVID protocols. ) Or was it because country fans love his music?
Wallen’s tunes proudly double down on whiskey, twang and small towns, but you might have needed three beers to appreciate his performance on Saturday.
A solid songwriter, he lacked presence in large venues and, more disconcertingly, he was a pedestrian singer on stage, prone to pitch issues and outright shouting, confusing defiance and bawling nasally with passion.
Musically, Wallen has one foot in bro-country, some toes in modern country with electro and hip-hop elements, and one in traditional country.
His most impressive efforts on Saturday were selections he didn’t write – an acoustic playback of Jason Isbell’s vulnerable love song “Cover Me Up” and Wallen’s clever and heartbreaking 2018 hit “Whiskey Glasses “, a classic country tune filled with double hits and double meanings. One of the best country songs of this century, it was the heart-pounding finale to Wallen’s 85-minute set.
For Church, 45, who played two consecutive nights at Target Center in 2019, this is his first foray into stadiums. A Nashville marathon man known for his rare three-hour shows, he seamlessly turned his brand of country brio into football field fare. Guitars roared, drums kicked and vocals soared, both from Church and back-up vocalist Joanna Cotten.
Opener “Outsiders” rocked with a metallic edge, “Desperate Man” despairing with a Stonesian vibe, and “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” galvanized like a true country anthem, with trombone, saxophone, and trumpet blast.
The crowd loved “Smoke a Little Smoke” with its swampy beats and the creepy electronica “Creepin’” with Church’s soulful vocals. He juxtaposed the soulful ballad “These Boots” with the fiery “Stick That in Your Country Song,” ending his triumphant 130-minute performance a few ticks before midnight.
Like his hero Bruce Springsteen, Church sang with such consistent conviction over rockers and ballads that he felt like this might have been his last performance. But he said he would like to come back to Minneapolis, maybe next Saturday night. It would be another maverick move from Church.