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Review: Eric Church's 'Caught in the Act: Live' has an outlaw vibe

Eric Church performs at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in March. He’s opening for Kenny Chesney on Chesney’s stadium tour.

LUIS SANTANA | Times

Eric Church performs at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in March. He’s opening for Kenny Chesney on Chesney’s stadium tour.

In typical North Carolina ne'er-do-well style, Eric Church gives you options with his new album, the loud, lewd, raucously 100-proof Caught in the Act: Live.

You can buy this sucker for your iPod or CD player. Or you can wait until April 20, Record Store Day, and grab a double-vinyl gatefold version with extra tracks plus a "whiskey-infused" 45 rpm single. Play it — or melt it and drink it!

You gotta love Church. Along with his country-spitfire counterpart Miranda Lambert, the 35-year-old has brought a true outlaw vibe back to safe, staid Nashville. The guy does it right and real and rowdy, including reviving the old-school fun of a live LP, a seemingly long-dead format that always works best as a party platter. And as for that "gatefold" presentation — double-album art that unfolds like a picture book — well, boys and girls, ask anyone over 40 what you're supposed to do with that.

Church has taken his time with stardom, playing gig after gig, at roadhouses and barbecue fests, honing his live chops and rising up at his own genuine pace. Wow, has that paid off. Now he's opening for Kenny Chesney's stadium swing, where he's arguably stealing the show with a set that recently polarized a Tampa crowd into half head-banging, half stunned. Me? I hadn't been that inspired in a long time.

Recorded over two nights in Chattanooga's Tivoli Theatre, the 17-track Caught in the Act comes close enough to capturing that chest-beating, crowd-imploring energy of his shows, which blend metallic thunder and shaggy moonshine stomp, Church's hounddog whine snaking through it all like wire.

Unlike the more-is-more country mindset of releasing product, Church has dropped just three albums in the past seven years, the latest, 2011's Chief, winning the Country Music Association's album of the year. As a result of his careful artistic approach, Church doesn't do filler or bathroom breaks; even slower songs here such as Sinners Like Me have naughty hungover charm. He may deal in the same boots-and-booze bromides as his peers, but not only does he write his own stuff, he lives and believes it, too.

The hard stuff is the draw, and Church's ferocious band — including the guitar onslaught of Driver Williams, Jeff Cease and Jeff Hyde — attacks every cut like a challenge, from the honky-tonk breakout of Country Music Jesus to the lumbering thump of I'm Gettin' Stoned. Drink in My Hand remains one of the purest fist-pumps of weekend affirmation; and when he implores during the song "I'm going to give you every ounce of everything I have from here to the end," it's not a line, it's a promise.

For all the aural fisticuffs, Church forgoes a final haymaker and closes with a nine-minute version of ballad Springsteen, which includes the same breathtaking coda as when he played the Chesney gig at Ray Jay. He amends the song with a spare, slow reading of the titular hero's Born to Run. It's a gorgeous homage to memory and the man himself. And if you're a fervent Church believer like me, it may also sound like the eventual passing, from the Boss to the Chief, of the royal live-show torch.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

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Eric Church, Caught in the Act: Live (EMI Nashville)

GRADE: A

Review: Eric Church's 'Caught in the Act: Live' has an outlaw vibe 04/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 6:10pm]

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