Out of a white cloud of smoke, country singer Eric Church emerged, alone, on stage at the Maverik Center Saturday.
Donning his signature ball cap and dark shades, the 35-year-old North Carolina native began strumming an acoustic guitar. A few moments after, the large black curtain behind him dropped to reveal a brightly lit set with the cover of his third album "Chief" the focal point.
That is, it was the focal point until the pyrotechnics began. Fireballs shot towards the rafters as the crowd roared.
The opening song was "Country Music Jesus," with Church bellowing:
"There'll be fire on the mountain
"There'll be revival and banging drums
"There'll be screaming and there'll be shouting
"When my country music Jesus comes."
Church is no country music Jesus, but he made a good case for evoking the populist appeal of John the Baptist in a rollicking, rocking good time at the last stop on the West Coast of his headlining "Blood, Sweat and Beers Tour."
If Jason Aldean doesn't watch out, Church could usurp Aldean's crown as the consummate entertainer of the Nashville set. Aldean doesn't write his own songs Church does and while Aldean's robust guitar riffs are the foundation for much of his showmanship, Church is the type of frontman who beats his chest at the end of a show like a man of the jungle and frequently pumps his arms back and forth as if he were a warrior-like Kirk Gibson rounding the bases after hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
Plenty of country performers rely on smoke and mirrors to cover lackluster material, but what adds heft to Church's offerings is his songwriting, which helped him win an unlikely but deserving County Music Association award earlier this month for Album of the Year. With shout-outs to the influences of Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen and Hank Williams (junior and senior), Church has established what type of artist he is and what he stands for: he's an outlaw who loves the holy trinity of Jesus, Jack Daniel's and beer.
The only problem with Church's concert was that the sound mix was muddy throughout his set, and his twangy, deep vocals were buried too low. But that didn't matter much to the gleefully soused crowd, who would raise their cups of beer to Church more often than raising their lighters.
Outlaws in country music haven't connected with the mainstream country music audience for a long time, and it could be stretch to call someone an outlaw who uses pyrotechnics as often as Def Leppard. But country needs better songwriting and authenticity, and Church could be that cry from the wilderness..
When • Saturday
Where • Maverik Center, West Valley City
Bottom Line • North Carolina singer may not be household name, but soon will