If you ever worry that Denver’s Western flair has drowned in yoga pants and groomed beards, you should have been at the May 10 Eric Church concert at the Pepsi Center — the first of two nights of his Double Down tour — and basked in the glory of the self-avowed redneck crowd. Half of Wyoming seemed to be there, and western Kansas, too. It was almost like Colorado was Colorado again.
In long beer lines, folks were decked out in flannel, cowboy hats and stiff trucker caps from feed shops worn entirely unironically. Those not wearing flannel sported Church merch in force. Many tees had “Chief” — his nickname — emblazoned on them; others wore text scripted like a Jack Daniel’s logo. My favorite shirt of the night, which was worn by a kid who didn’t look too happy to be there: “My Parents Finally Decided to Take Me to Church.”
Many men in the crowd were the kind who shave their faces several times a day. Some wore those cop-loving logos with the American flag desecrated with a blue stripe. Many women had long eyelashes so stiff with makeup they could slice open skin.
All of that is in sharp contrast to Church himself, whose black T-shirt, dark tight jeans, sunglasses and scruff made him look like the bad boy of new-country music, even if it’s hard to be a rock-and-roll rebel in a genre that's been sounding like the stuff of Applebee's as of late.
He’s a throwback artist to much of what was once great about country — in everything but his sound. He writes smart lyrics about raw emotions and acknowledges the giants whose shoulders he stands on: Waylon and Willie and Hank and Merle. But Church's music is imprisoned in today's country radio sound and suffers because of that. Nashville's holding him back.
For much of the night, Church stumbled around like a drunk lost on a city street. He’d punch at the air, then kick and briefly lose his balance, but hardly missed a note and consistently connected with the crowd along the way (even when he came in late on one of his last songs — a mistake he could hardly stop giggling about). When he sang “Desperate Man,” there was no doubt this was true.
His stage included a runway that wrapped around a pit, and he spent a lot of time bending down to hold hands with his fans and sign records, towels and blankets. He’s generous that way. But Church seemed like he’d rather be playing a small club. He spent most of his time connecting with the people in the front rows and in the pit and much less forming a bond with the fans in the back of the house and up in the nose-bleed section.
This was the first concert I’d been to since Denver decriminalized magic mushrooms. Knowing Church has a reputation as the Willie Nelson of new country — strictly for their mutual love of weed — I feared a new brand of drug joke would be coming. While Church referenced cannabis legalization during “Smoke a Little Smoke,” he mercifully steered clear of anything about ’shrooms.
One of the best parts of the night was country singer Joanna Cotten, a brassy vocalist who brought some high-key passion to a mostly subdued backing group. “You’re lucky you get to listen to Joanna Cotten sing,” Church said. And we were.
When they sang duos, the crowd went into a frenzy. Even Church fell to his knees at one point in praise of Cotten's talent. The whole thing felt a little too much like A Star Is Born for my taste, but she wowed us from the beginning of the night — particularly on the song “Over When It’s Over.”
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Church best connected with Denver when waxing nostalgic about local venues. “Grizzly Rose was our first concert here,” he said. Apparently, it was there that the heel of an old boot fell off, causing him to plummet into the crowd. That story, which he told, inspired the song “These Boots.” When he sang it, his fans wearing cowboy boots took theirs off and waved them in the air. A few people threw boots on stage, and he signed them.
Church talked about how Colorado has a special musical spirit — and he’s right. He lavished praise on Red Rocks — which he has played — as the greatest live-music venue in the world. He even talked about listening to Colorado jam-grass stalwarts Leftover Salmon when he was in college.
Toward the end of the night, he broke out into a passionate and imperfect guy-with-a-guitar medley of classic songs — including “Cocaine,” “Drift Away” and John Denver's “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The campfire effect was sloppy but charming, and the crowd sang along.
All that made me wish Church could cut the binds with pop-country radio, come out west, and do something gritty outside the industry. He’s made it as a star — and as he says in “Those I’ve Loved,” his career was never about that. His life’s always been about the songs.