Was it the Roxy or the Whisky?
Eric Church couldn’t recall which of the two famed Sunset Strip venues he’d played at on a long-ago visit to Los Angeles, years before he became one of country music’s biggest stars. Either way, the sweaty gig had been one to remember, he said — for him as well as for the early adopters he thanked for helping to spread the word about him.
On Friday night, Church reminisced before a much larger crowd at Staples Center, where the singer’s latest tour stopped en route to Sunday’s Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas. The singer is nominated for song of the year with “Kill a Word,” a thoughtful plea for tolerance from his latest album, “Mr. Misunderstood,” which he released with little warning in late 2015.
But if Church’s popularity has propelled him from clubs to arenas — and enabled him to surprise-drop new work à la Beyoncé — he hasn’t lost his affection for the tiny rooms he used to haunt.
“Let’s turn this place into a 16,000-17,000-person bar,” he said onstage at Staples before handing a drink to a fan in the front row. Then he revved up his song “Jack Daniels,” in which he admits that the booze in question “kicked my ass again last night.”
What was remarkable about Friday’s concert is how Church managed to create that sense of intimacy even as he embraced the scale of an arena production.
For starters, the show was long: nearly 3 ½ hours (including an intermission), with about three dozen songs from throughout Church’s decade-long career.
That length allowed for plenty of the crafty yet snarling radio hits — “The Outsiders,” “Sinners Like Me,” “Smoke a Little Smoke” — that have led many to think of Church as an heir to the outlaw country stars of the 1970s. Church himself welcomed the comparison with “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” his bumptious tribute to the late Merle Haggard, who died last year.
But Church also had time to roam. Backed by his nimble road band, he did an appealingly slapdash rendition of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” which he said they’d never played before and probably never would again.
And he dug beyond the well-known tunes for deeper album cuts like the AC/DC-ish “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” and “Mistress Named Music,” for which he brought out a choir he said was from Inglewood High School.
“You guys make ’em welcome,” he told the audience.
There were other flashes of showmanship, as when Church disappeared from view, then popped up on a video screen, apparently pouring shots for his crew members backstage. (In case anyone wasn’t getting the message, this proud Jack Daniel’s brand ambassador also sang “Cold One” and “Drink in My Hand.”)
But you never got the feeling that the singer was fronting a well-oiled machine; the concert was relaxed and spontaneous at the same time, an impressive blend of energy and assurance.
The specificity of Church’s writing helped sell the idea that he was spilling his guts. Even when he was looking to get fists pumping in purpose-built anthems like “Springsteen” and “Give Me Back My Hometown,” he offered vivid images that kept the music rooted in experience.
“My friends try to cheer me up, get together at the Pizza Hut,” he sang in the latter, about his memories of an ex, “I didn’t have the heart to tell them that was our place.”
He told us, though — just 16,000 of his closest drinking buddies.
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