Nine microphones. That was the setup Eric Church gave himself at Tampa's Amalie Arena Thursday night, each stand pierced with a spine of custom guitar picks, and one toting a big black glass labeled CHIEF.
Why does one singer need nine mics? Well, that's not the point. The point is that when Chief hits the road, he's dead-set on going wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and singing wherever he dang well pleases.
And if Chief wants to spend three and a half rip-roaring hours snarling into nine different mics facing nine different directions, sharing the stage with no one but his crackerjack band, you better believe he will.
"Yesterday I turned 40 years old," the country superstar told the crowd Thursday night, "and I decided, to hell with my 30s, I'm just going to play all through my 40s."
For 15,800 fans, the country superstar's Holdin' My Own Tour – two sets, 37 songs, and not one opening act – proved to be pure heaven, a marathon night of audience-pleasing singles and deep cuts and zero fluffy filler from a guy who does it all his way.
How does Church have the stamina to pull off a show most country acts wouldn't dream of? Economy of motion, for starters. His square, multitiered stage gave him plenty of room to wander – hence the nine microphones – and Church used every inch of that space, singing in every direction and giving as many fans as possible a great view.
But he never ran, never panted, never appeared to break a bead of sweat beyond those impenetrable aviators. Many of his songs were smoke-filled slow burners, including opener Mistress Named Music, during which he was backed by a robed gospel choir from Freedom High School. And on a few, including the Stones-like That's Damn Rock and Roll, hell-raising Chattanooga Lucy and searing blues ballad Mixed Drinks About Feelings, he handed lead vocals to backup singer Joanna Cotten.
But Church was far from a mannequin up there. In fact, he spent huge chunks of the night screaming and fist-pumping like an amped-up linebackers coach – someone give this man a helmet to slap! – as he sneered out thundering cuts like The Outsiders and Drink In My Hand. Church sings best with a chip on his shoulder, and on the title track to his latest album Mr. Misunderstood, you could sense it.
"It's a little more personal for me tonight than other nights," he said, raising his hand high. "I want you here. I want your asses up here."
His band helped them get there, particularly shaggy sideman Jeff Cease, who worked a gnarly slide on the stomping Cold One and Pledge Allegiance to the Hag; and Jeff Hyde, who picked a mean banjo on the rambling How 'Bout You. Even on the songs where Church's songwriting shone brightest – Talladega, say, or Knives of New Orleans – they were crucial in making it happen.
The second set roared to life with the Sabbathy chords of Ain't Killed Me Yet and vintage cut Guys Like Me, and Church roaring, "This is where we turn it up a notch, Tampa Bay!" Fans responded by bellowing along on Give Me Back My Hometown and Record Year.
Set 2 is where Church finally dropped his monster anthem Springsteen, and, appropriately, where the spirit of of the Boss really kicked in.
Homeboy brought the power-chord power of a Pearl Jam number; I'm Gettin' Stoned waves of crunching, distorted guitars; Creepin' a glimpse at Church's furious inner hellbilly. During Jack Daniels, he ducked beneath the stage to pour more than a dozen whiskey shots for crew and fans. Fans tossed waves of boots on stage during These Boots, and at one point, someone even threw a bra, which Church promptly hung on a mic.
"It's the Dallas Bull all over!" he shouted, referring to the Tampa nightclub he used to play back in the day.
And in true Springsteen fashion, Church mixed up his setlist with a surprise, state-appropriate cover: John Anderson's Seminole Wind.
"I was in Panama City, and this song actually came on the radio, and I thought, S---, I gotta do that," he said. "I've never done it, ever, in my life. But screw it, we'll do it."
A normal tour might not give Church the chance to play a different cover every night; or trot out early cuts like 2006's Two Pink Lines, an '80s-style rocker along the lines of Rick Springfield's Jessie's Girl. Here, with all the time in the world, he was all too eager.
"For us it's always been about the albums, it's always been about our entire catalog," he said. "It's not just one song, it's the whole thing."
And when, after more than three hours, he finally got to Springsteen -- an American flag draped around his neck, no less -- he gave the crowd an emotional pep talk for the ride home.
"Bottom of my heart, thank you for tonight -- not just tonight, but thank you for this, Tampa, all of this," he said, sweeping his arms around the jam-packed arena. "One day I won't be on this stage, one day you won't be where you are. But we'll always have tonight."
Church fans will cherish the memory, not least because of all those hits and deep cuts, but also because he's said he'll go back to standard sets with opening acts starting this fall. After commanding the stage solo for so long, he's at last ready again to share the mic.
At least he's got plenty to share.
-- Jay Cridlin