Stagecoach 2014: Eric Church feels his power in Friday headlining set

Eric Church performed Friday night at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival before a wall built of several dozen amplifiers.

Or at least they appeared to be amplifiers: With the singer's nickname "Chief" emblazoned on them in place of the amp maker Marshall's iconic logo, the large black boxes were almost certainly stage props -- a visual expression of the guitar-band intensity Church was promising in a headlining set that opened with his song "That's Damn Rock & Roll."

One of country's most proudly rock-attuned acts, Church made clear he could follow through on that threat.

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He revved "Drink in My Hand" to a Rolling Stones-style boogie, while the title track from his latest album, "The Outsiders," climaxed in a four-guitar freak-out that could've passed for something by Faith No More. 

Mostly, though, Church's 90-minute show avoided such displays; like those prop amplifiers, it was all about implied power.

Fronting a five-piece band, the singer seemed completely relaxed as he moved unhurriedly through songs from his four studio albums: a slow and funky "Cold One"; a sternly anthemic "Homeboy"; "Smoke a Little Smoke," which his guys juiced with the riff from Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf."

Near the middle of his set he stripped down to voice-and-guitar mode for a lovely rendition of "Like Jesus Does" that had some Al Green in it.

The contained-chaos vibe came in stark contrast with the more frantic energy Church used to put across -- including at the first Stagecoach, in 2007, which he mentioned Friday that he'd played at the up-and-comer's hour of 2 in the afternoon.

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Seven years later, he's an established star with one of 2014's biggest-selling records and a brand strong enough that he can go without his signature trucker cap. (He kept the dark aviator shades.)

But his newfound confidence could be just as exciting to watch as his old desperation was -- particularly on a festival bill that had him following Thomas Rhett and Brantley Gilbert, two younger singers still actively proving themselves.

In "Give Me Back My Hometown," Church's current single, he gave some dignity to a lyric about hanging out at Pizza Hut. And when he closed Friday's show by adding a bit of "I'm on Fire" to his big hit "Springsteen," he didn't sound like a kid trying on an adult's clothes.

He was Chief, borrowing naturally from the Boss.


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