The significance of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" blasting from the speakers to jumpstart Eric Church's latest headlining tour would only become clear after three-plus hours of nonstop, throbbing anthems about hard-working Americans, reclaiming one's heritage and poppin' a few cold ones. That's exactly what ensued. In lieu of an opening act, Church instead inserted two, full-length sets on his Holdin' My Own Tour, which made a detour at Brooklyn's Barclays Center last night, Jan. 27. The original Cohen classic evokes the spirit of many Biblical figures, like Samson and King David, and it was that lyrical poetry on which Church has constructed his live show--for a modern audience, of course, brimming with a bold 36-song display.
"It's just you and me all night long, and I promise you this I'm gonna give you everything I got. You are either are going to kill me tonight or I'm going to kill you tonight," he told the crowd.
A wall of cheers erupted after his stirring and emotional reading of his Mr Misunderstood deep cut, "Knives of New Orleans," which remains cloaked in mystery and desperation to this day. The moment felt big, as if the 39-year-old was reflecting on his life and the world in 2017 and pleading with everyone there to set aside their political affiliations and come together for love and peace.
Now entering the second decade of his mainstream country career, Church is able to shatter the barriers which have held cities and peoples and countries at arms length. Playing for more than three hours gives the singer, who has mirrored his career after the great Bruce Springsteen, license to feel the music in ways many of his contemporaries don't. He often looked to the audience for their reactionary responses, gleaming his pearly whites behind his signature Aviators as a way to get even closer to each and every attendee. The staging was stark, even by Church standards, and featured a single loop-like stage peppered with various microphones aimed in different directions to give fans from even the nosebleeds a chance to meet him face-to-face. With a songbook as expanse and musically-rich as his, the way Church has built the show is cohesive and needles together provocative themes of the small-town spirit--his anthem "These Boots," from his 2006 debut Sinners Like Me (which played as one of the night's pivotal figures), proved to be a unifying reminder of humanity and our obligation to come together even under the most oppressive of times.
The political thread, prominent in Church's songbook since he blasted onto the scene years ago, seemed to be the heart-muscle of his show; only his long-time backup vocalist Joanna Cotten came to meet the intensity and sheer resolve of his storytelling. Memphis-born and Arkansas-raised, Cotten conjures up the deeply-moving roar of womanly power.
"I have to sing for people, that's just the way it is," she has professed about her need to make music. "It's like a beast inside of me that has to come out, and it's been that way since I was a baby girl." When given the spotlight on such songs as "That's Damn Rock and Roll" and "Kill a Word," grounded with Church's blatant proclamations of good-will and accountability, Cotten elicited the strongest responses, and in a world when woman are not treated as equals, Church's campaign to fervently display her raw abilities is refreshing.
"No matter where you go in the world," the headliner later said during his set. "don't matter what the genre lines are: Music is music."
And with that, he wove together a set which zipped along at brisk past and seemed to cut the heart of middle America with a kitchen knife, leaving it to feel vulnerable and open and willing to accept the dark, cold world but understand one's commitment to progression. There were even moments the audience was left breathless, as each song melted into the next. From the opener "Mistress Named Music," a resolution to self-inflicted ties to the art, and "Livin' Part of Life" to the slinky "Chattanooga Lucy" and "Mixed Drinks About Feelings," Church boldly led the charge to a new order. He let the music do the talking, and it sure did scream at the top of its lungs. The crowd seemed unified by the end, songs like "Springsteen" (which he extended to include a snippet of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" and shoutouts to Springsteen's "Brothers Under the Bridge" and "Glory Days"), the down-home anthem "Drink in My Hand," "Cold One," "Round Here Buzz" and "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" connected each individual with alarmingly tenderness.
These musical demonstrations of Church's faithfulness to his religion and the working man reached a fevered pitch when he picked up the American Flag from centerstage and wrapped the stars and stripes around his shoulders. It was as if he was accepting his duty as today's unmatched torchbearer (reflecting the ghost of Merle Haggard) and use his platform for some undeclared but understood mission. The overwhelming burden of that title proved to be no worthy rival for him. The singer, who spoke out about America's broken political system last summer--"At the end of the day, we all have to get along. I don’t care what your belief is – we can’t kill each other. It can’t happen that way. There’s a lot of racial tension in this country, a lot of authoritative tension with police, and I think all that stuff makes for a tumultuous time," he told Rolling Stone--framed his storytelling, the melodies and gritty lyricism, around universal themes of love and freedom and acceptance.
He later told the magazine, “We have a broken political system. It’s been broken a while. And there is a lot of anger. There is a lot of discontent. It’s very important that we don’t dismiss it. I think all of our politicians need to take a hard look at what their goals are and where we’re headed. Because I think a lot of the anger is against the political system, and that can be dangerous if it continues to get worse.”
Even Church's encore was suitably intimate and self-aware, as he performed such acoustic-driven songs like "Holdin' My Own," "Sinners Like Me" and "Those I've Loved." When the evening came to a close, begrudgingly by Church himself who could have easily kept going for another six hours, the crowd erupted with an earth-shaking applause unlike anything New York City has likely ever witnessed. To say he "held is own" in the city that never sleeps is an understatement; he took the city by the horns and never let go.
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