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Church works it from the outside

Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, N.H., October 23, 2014

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Eric Church starts his excellent new release, "The Outsiders," with the spoken words "They're the in-crowd, we're the other ones." And that's true in more ways than one for Church's new tour, which also features much praised, up-and-coming songwriter Brandy Clark and veteran honky tonker Dwight Yoakam.

The fact is, in a very large way, all three performers are outsiders, at least when it comes what's popular in country music. "The Outsiders' is a bold record, not swaying to convention. But Church hasn't really been that way either, starting with his debut and "Two Pink Lines," a song he did not play this night, about an unwanted pregnancy.

Yes, there are lots of songs about drinking, but it wasn't gratuitous like the bro country crowd. No hick hop (save one very slight part). No pop songs trying to dupe the country crowd (and it was definitely on the 20s/30s side).

But truth be told, Church ought not be confused with a straight-ahead country performer either. That's part of what he does, but he's more of a rocker with some Southern roots and country.

The North Carolinian made that obvious from the start of "The Outsiders" where Church led his band up the ramp onstage and with a spoken part before the band lit into it. From there, it was a mixture of songs from throughout his five releases with a heavy emphasis on "The Outsiders."

Church has certainly grown more comfortable and confident in his own skin as a performer over the years. In the past, his bark seemed bigger than his bite. But with history behind him both recording and touring with a batch of quality songs, he displays a confidence that matches the material.

Church was not a slave to the songs either. This was not a reproduction of a recording. "That's' Damn Rock & Roll"," for example, from "The Outsiders," quickly featured a vocal tour de force in the form of backing singer Joanne Cotten, whose bluesy approach made it stronger than the CD version in a Stonesy-type song. Many songs were stretched out or altered from the recorded version.

In each city takes a request to give each stop something a bit different. On this night, he handled the love song "You Make It Look So Easy" with band mates on acoustic, quite well, despite not having played it since his 2011 wedding.

Even though he is not a direct link to folks like Cash, Church seems to have a lot more in common with him than some of the other name checking poseurs out there. In the very well done "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," Church point blank makes it exactly clear how he feels "You say you're the real deal/But you play what nobody feels/you sing about Johnny Cash/The man in black would've whipped your ass."

So, when Church closed his healthy 110-jminute set with no encore (kudos for Church not giving into doing an encore, although he clearly deserved one for non-perfunctory reasons), he started with a low-key delivered chunk of "Born in the USA" before lighting into perhaps his biggest hit "Springsteen."

The song is about a memory of a young love long gone and far away. With songs that tell stories and an attitude to match, the idea of Church singing "Springsteen" seemed honest and legit. After all, Springsteen always has championed the underdog for a long time.

Church wore the mantle of the outsider quite well.

As did Clark and Yoakam. Yoakam's hewing to the honky tonk and other old style keeps him on the outside looking in, particularly today. While he did offer one new song, "Second Hand Heart," which didn't register all that much, Yoakam went through a chunk of his catalogue.

Playing on his 58th birthday, Yoakam sounded about as good as ever. He has a lot of timbre and vibrancy in his delivery, although sometimes it was a bit hard to understand the words. And he, unfortunately, had a number of microphone issues.

But the songs remain from the opening of "Dim Lights Thick Smoke" to the Orbison-esque like "Fast As You" and Presley replay of "Little Sister." Add "Streets of Bakersfield," with the late Owens having sung on Yoakam's recorded cover of the chestnut, to the list. Yoakam has a lot of old school influences of course, which he proudly stands behind. He pays homage while asserting his own vision.

Yoakam also changed it up as his toned down "Ring of Fire" may have caught the uninitiated unaware, and he picked up the pace of "Honky Tonk Man" with his dancing away back towards audience, shimmying and shaking to the good sounds.

Somehow it seemed odd that at this stage of his career for Yoakam to be a middle act, but it sure was good to hear Yoakam again.

Clark is part of an emerging breed of females making their mark on country, including Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Clark's known for having penned "Better Dig Two" for The Band Perry and "Mama's Broken Heart" with Musgraves for Miranda Lambert. Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow and Toby Keith are among those who have recorded her songs in just the past two years.

But she was more than a songwriter. Clark was of strong voice, sometimes recalling Terri Clark a bit. And like the others that would follow this night, Clark went against the grain. "Get High" is about a bored housewife who "rolls herself a fat one." That's before she lit into "Crazy Women" and "Hungover." Tough chicks rule.

Clark, Yoakam and Church made it seem awfully good be on the outside.