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4/7/24 residency show

Fire on a Mountain

About 30 minutes into Friday night’s first-ever edition of Eric Church’s “To Beat the Devil” residency at Chief’s, he paused.

He was telling a story. He does that frequently in this show. You probably think you know him through his music, but you have never gotten to know him this way. Because in this show, he sits right there on a stool and tells you about it. And so as he was telling this particular story, it reminded him of another story. And he wanted to tell that one, too, but…

“Is this OK?” he said, shrugging and looking out at the audience.

It made sense to ask. After all, he’d never done this before. The crowd of 350 lucky ticketholders had never done this before. So, again, the question:

“Is this OK?”

It was much more than OK. It was an evening that was different than any way you’ve ever seen Eric Church before. There were Church Choir members in the crowd tonight like Aaron Shriver, who goes so far back that he saw Church in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Hoover, Alabama, when there were nine other fans in attendance.

But even that was nothing like this. Without giving too much away, there were 15 songs on the set list. Five of them you’ve never heard before. Two of them would qualify as extreme rarities, and one is a cover that falls in that same category. One is a favorite you’ve never heard in quite this way.

In many ways, a 20-year career led directly to this night. All those years of playing shows and nights on the road and achievements and disappointments led straight to this moment: Eric Church, sitting in a building that bears his name on the most iconic street in country music, playing songs no one has ever heard before, and 19 shows worth of tickets sold out without there ever being a public sale.

This is when the 20 years of goodwill pays off. This is when all the boots signed during These Boots, all the albums autographed during Record Year, all the flags worn around his neck, turn into something else. No one had any clue what to expect on Friday, but they were all desperate to be there. They had that much faith. He’s earned that trust.

The show is a guided tour — Church is the tour guide, of course — through those 20 years. And let’s be honest: if you have tickets to one of the remaining 18 shows, there is no guarantee you will see the same performance that the crowd saw on Friday. This is Eric Church, after all. This is the same artist who spent weeks rehearsing the show, only to then stay up until 4 a.m. on Thursday morning rewriting it. He’d played a couple songs at a friends and family event on Wednesday and liked the way they resonated. Time to change the setlist.

Eric Church on stage at Neon Steeple

The cell phone and camera ban — and people, please know that they’re better at catching you than you are at hiding it — created an unusual moment before the show. It was noticeably buzzy in the Neon Steeple performance area. Then you remembered why: people didn’t have their phones, so they were actually talking to each other. The same was true during the show. Instead of trying to get that perfect video of a song, the crowd was intent on singing every single word of the songs they knew at the loudest possible volume.

But they also were able to fall completely silent when Church was telling some of the more emotional stories. And some generated laughter, including the two tour stories before which he sternly looked out at the crowd and said, “This is only for this room, OK?”

In many ways, this show isn’t that much different than that Wal-Mart parking lot. There’s give and take between Church and his audience, and some of the songs are definitely the same. There are moments of raucous sing-alongs, and there are moments when it’s utterly silent waiting for the next lyric.

But the difference is that now he’s lived more life, has more stories to tell, and can speak with first-person experience on life’s glorious highs and the devastating lows.

The night ranges, within moments, from wiping a tear out of your eyes to dancing in your seat. He’s been around the world perfecting that particular brand of entertainment. Now he gets to do it at home, in a room full of friends.

So, is it OK? Nope. It was something more than that. It was…what exactly? There should be words for this.

Oh yes, there are. It was fire on a mountain.