There were many so-called outsiders inside Staples Center on Friday for Eric Church’s stop as part of his “The Outsiders World Tour.” So many outcasts that they couldn’t help but bond like a bunch of insiders. They all agreed on one thing, something pretty basic about country music in 2015: If you’re aiming for look-you-in-the-eyes honesty in your singing men, Church is your guy.
This despite wearing aviator sunglasses that hid his peepers throughout the night. You think he cares? No: “We’re the junkyard dogs, we’re the alley cats/ Keep the wind at our front, and the hell at our back.”
Still, you don’t need to see his pupils to know Eric Church of North Carolina isn’t messing around. It’s in his determined delivery and his philosophy as explained in that opening song, the title track to his platinum selling album “The Outsiders”: to “paint where there ain’t supposed to be paint.”
Through a muscular set with his band of tattooed country boys, Church laid out the facts as he saw them, take ‘em or leave ‘em. He achieved that with an underlying sense of purpose that strongly resembled that of his opening act, the eternal purveyor of honky tonk magic, Dwight Yoakam: to celebrate and document life honestly and reverently, and to do so minus much commercial sheen. (Earlier in the night the rock band Halestorm performed.)
Below: five highlights from an expertly executed night of outlaw country rock.
1. Hair cut short and donning black cowboy boots, blue jeans and a black T-shirt, country superstar Church has traveled many miles, and four studio albums, in the decade since his first Los Angeles gig. Onstage while introducing “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” his tribute to spirit guide Merle Haggard, Church recalled that 2005 first show on the Sunset Strip. It was at the Whisky A-Go-Go, he said. Looking out over the arena, Church silenced someone in the crowd who clapped knowingly. “You weren’t there,” chided Church, firm but with a smile on his face, adding that the Whisky set drew “about six people."
He looked at the sold-out crowd and said, with wonder: “To go from that in 2005 to the Staples Center today ...” He then opened his song about a “dive on a dead-end road” that every hour on the hour plays a Haggard song and the clientele pauses to reflect: “We tip our hats and raise our glasses of cold, cold beer” to the Hag.
2. Curious to know how Church views the Nashville country music establishment? His answer arrived in the form of a four-story inflatable demon, which erupted from the far end of the arena as he and the band kicked off “Devil, Devil,” from “The Outsiders.”
A riff-driven jam that split the difference between outlaw country and electric blues, Church’s song described his adopted city as “a temptress -- a siren with gold eyes/ She’ll cut you with her kindness/ She will lead you with her eyes.” As he sang, the blow-up demon, glowing red, spun for all to see. It wore a belt with a big buckle that read, simply, “Nashville."
3. Prior to Church’s set, I decided to find out how far the purple wristband I’d graciously been provided by Church’s camp would get me. I flashed it as I got to the floor, and the usher waved me toward the front. There, another usher let me pass beyond the first rows. This happened until I was near the side of the stage, like 20 feet away.
A helpful other pointed me through a short tunnel until, boom, I was in a pocket of about 30 fans surrounded by the band getting ready to perform above. Throughout the set, band members circled us and soloed to the crowd. Our view was like we were onstage with the players. We could see, for example, that affixed to the drum riser was a shelf holding full bottles of Jack Daniels and Patron tequila, to be consumed later in the night. Totally great way to experience the show, especially during one of Church’s most bummed-out songs, “Hungover and Hard Up."
4. Church’s devoted fan base sure can toss back some booze. Pity the poor bartenders who had to service the long lines. Between Yoakam’s solid, no-nonsense set and Church’s headlining one, the thousands hit the taps hard.
One frustrated bartender, juggling impatient patrons, attempted to merge two long lines into one after many of us (read: me) had been waiting for a half hour. An uptight, cowboy-hatted redneck behind me yelled angrily at that flustered bartender, “Let’s go!” like he was waiting for long-delayed food rations. Another wore a cowboy hat fashioned out of cardboard Budweiser 12-pack cases.
5. Did somebody say Dwight Yoakam? The honky tonk hero received a warm welcome in downtown Los Angeles. The singer was a mainstay of the city’s alternative country scene of the 1980s, where he came up alongside the Blasters, the Knitters, X and Los Lobos (and no doubt gigged the Whiskey A-Go-Go when Church was still in grade school).
For a deep, typically solid set of electric honky tonk music, Yoakam and band offered a bit more shimmer and sparkle than Church. Performing songs from throughout Yoakam’s platinum career, Yoakam struck a note with the crowd during the opening licks to “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” the artist’s hit song about heartbreak, isolation, “bruises on my memory” and “tear stains on my hands.”
That heartbreak was tempered by a band that donned glistening sequined blazers, and played glistening sequined twang. For his part, Yoakam wore a jeans jacket and a wide-brimmed white cowboy hat set low on his head. As he strummed through a simmering rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Yoakam turned to face his drummer. When he did so, the back of Yoakam’s working-man’s jacket revealed a line of fancily sequined musical notes. The humble coat wasn’t so humble after all.
Like the artists onstage, it shined when you least expected it.
Looking for music tips? Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit