Eric Church wrote “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” when he was 36, he told the crowd at the Prudential Center in Newark, Saturday night. “What the hell made you wanna love/A man who was gonna die young?” he asks, in the chorus. His solo performance of this song, in the middle of his set, was particularly poignant because the show took place on the eve of his 38th birthday, Sunday.
As he sang later, in “Homeboy,” “You can’t hold back the hands of time.”
Of course, the question in “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is directed at a woman, not his fans. Artists like Church, who play the kind of aggressively rocking music that is sometimes called outlaw country, are expected to live with a certain amount of recklessness, especially when they’re are just starting out.
Church, who has five hit albums under his belt, is far from a newcomer. He’s a brand name, capable of filling an Northeastern arena far from his North Carolina hometown and current Nashville home.
Still, his music retains a strong element of rebelliousness. He called his last album The Outsiders, and filled it with some of his brawniest songs (as well as some reflective ballads, including “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”). In concert, his band’s sound was usually quite muscular as well.
Even when there was a banjo in the mix, there was also one or more screaming electric guitars, and when guitarist Driver Williams soloed, he did so from a feral crouch, the way a member of Metallica might. And often, Church would shake his fist, not necessarily because he was singing an angry song, but just, it seemed, so he could vent a little of the energy that was coursing through his body, uncontrollably.
He played a lot of songs — 26 of them — with little theatrics beyond a the drum set descending from the rafters before the set started, and then rising and descending again during “Country Music Jesus.” There were a couple of covers along the way —Lynyrd Skynyrd’s swampy “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” Sammy Johns’ sweetly nostalgic “Chevy Van” — and, as the intro to Church’s tribute to New Jersey’s signature rock star, “Springsteen,” a bit of Springsteen’s epic “Jungleland.” (It takes a brave man to play “Jungleland” solo in an arena in Springsteen’s home state, but Church made it work, and the crowd ate it up.)
There were lots of songs about drinking, and smoking, and getting away from it all. “Tomorrow I’m takin’ me fishin’/Hang a sign on the door of my life’/Tell the world that I’ve gone missin’/And I won’t be back for a while,” Church sang on “Livin’ Part of Life.” Yet he clearly loves his own job, and is in it for the long haul.
The show included a song called “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” as in Merle Haggard. Well, Haggard is still on the road, at 78. From that perspective, Church — not even middle-aged yet, really — may just be getting started.