Eric Church Delivers Stellar Country Radio Seminar Surprise: Concert Review

Dan Harr/Invision/AP
An industry gig in the heart of Nashville is far from forgettable as the singer strips down his sometimes lambasted material to reveal what's beneath the surface.

"We've never done this before," confessed a decidedly loose Eric Church, adjusting his hollow-body electric guitar. With a few finger-picked notes and a vocal more contemplative than on record, "A Man Who'd Die Young" came closer to prayer than mere ballad as he opened a surprise concert for a few hundred during Nashville's Country Radio Seminar.

With the just-released The Outsiders debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart (his second time), modern country's resident badass stripped away sonic thrust to lay the songs bare for the people who "deliver the music." In the historic wooden Ryman Auditorium, Church struck a tone that was warm and intimate, revealing the nuance of the same album currently being lambasted as much as praised for its aggression.

Eschewing his trademark ball cap but wearing sunglasses at 1 a.m., Church and producer Jay Joyce created stark, atmospheric renderings of eight songs from Outsiders. On the bare stage, the oft-intense Church let down his guard, made jokes and showed how songs can shift.

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Confessing the pressure of having parents in the audience, especially when they give a thumbs-up during a song, he introduced "Like a Wrecking Ball," a song about returning from road sex. On the record, it's a shuffling bit of B3 and pluck; at the Ryman, it was slowed to a steamy soul witness that grew more impassioned as Church squeezed notes then whispered the last line.

Stripped back, "The Outsiders" was haunted and rhythmic -- Church's stomping in time prompting the late-night crowd of VIPs to clap along. Joyce, chewing gum and grinning, kept clicking pedals to coax squalls and overtones into his notes and build a soundscape. Church used the title track to create a community of lost souls who go against the status quo.

That intent continued on the conversational "Give Me Back My Hometown," rendered more lonesome, as the stretch-timed vocal offered a friendly read where the regret of what was lost shone through. With a string of eighth notes casting a hypnotic groove over the extended organ chords, Church employed a purer singing style, demonstrating the flexibility of his voice on "Rollercoaster Ride." Not quite jazz in its improv, he again seemed intent on proving how far these songs could stretch.

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For Church, who straddles the designation of mainstream and of outlaw, his Ryman show seemed designed to ground the man and the songs in the eye of the storm. Before launching into a much less menacing "Dark Side," the album's demon inside/vigilante moment, he told the assembled programmers and fans, "It's great to get up and play like this, to let music be music … I know we push you, but we hope you love us for it."

If he's a man at odds with himself, the closing song was apt. With country radio facing the dilemma of being swallowed by "bro country," Church, whose known for testing the limits, feels equally at home on the dark side. The standing ovation seemed to validate that notion.

Set List:

A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young
Cold One
The Outsiders
Give Me Back My Hometown
Like a Wrecking Ball
Roller Coaster Ride
Dark Side