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Going to Church

We were walking through a back hallway of Quicken Loans Arena on a February Friday night around 7 p.m. when a friend nudged us. “That’s the three-year-old,” he said, and then introduced us to Boone Church.

Boone looks too big to be a three-year-old, which is exactly right. He’s not a three-year-old, he’s the three-year-old—as in, the inspiration for the song by his dad, Eric Church, entitled Three Year-Old.

Boone has the type of personality that makes you pretty sure he’s going to be the inspiration for quite a few more songs over the course of his life. He’s five now, and is primarily interested in his father’s career because it means he gets to shoot baskets at a lot of really cool arenas. Less than three hours before Friday night’s first song, he was shooting hoops in the Cleveland Cavaliers practice gym.

“Who do you like better?” a security guard asked him, “LeBron or Kyrie?”

Boone was not impressed. “I don’t really like the Cavs,” he said. “I like Minnesota.”

His dad did a doubletake. His firstborn had not previously mentioned an affinity for the Timberwolves, but the tour had recently passed through the Target Center, so anything was possible.

It was like this every night on the Holdin’ My Own Tour. Backstage, there was a tightknit family of musicians and crew. Every night, they put on what was the biggest tour in America, and then they tore it all down and hauled it off to another city. On that particular day in Cleveland, they arrived from Indianapolis at 4 a.m. After the longest show of the tour so far—more tickets were sold at Quicken Loans Arena than any stop so far on the tour, so Eric felt inspired to give them the most songs yet on the tour, putting 36 songs on his set list and then adding a couple more on the end just to make sure everyone got their money’s worth; he took the stage just after 8:15 p.m. and played until midnight, with a 20-minute intermission–they packed up and headed for Auburn Hills, Michigan.

During the audible portion of the second act—Church is touring without an opening act, instead choosing to play for three hours every night, and on this night closer to four—the Granite Falls, N.C. native chuckled when he looked at the set list and saw what was supposed to come next.

“Before today, I had never heard this song,” he told the crowd. “But my manager is a Cleveland native, and he was singing it. And I told him I didn’t know this song, but I’d like to know it.”

So, as the unimaginably talented are known to do, Church simply learned “My Town,” a beloved Cleveland anthem by the Michael Stanley Band, in an afternoon. And there he was playing it in front of 20,000 people.

“My band and I,” he told the crowd, “have played this song a total of zero times together. Zero.”

And that’s what keeps them coming back. Because you never know when you might hear something for the first time, or when Church might decide to play “Standing Their Ground” as a tribute to first responders. The faithful were equally happy to hear “Two Pink Lines,” Church’s first single and one he hasn’t played on recent tours. It’s back on the set list now, because, well, there are three dozen other songs also on the set list. The singer makes certain every show is different.

It would be easier to simply replicate the same show every night, and it would still rock, and everyone would still go home happy. But it wouldn’t be Church, and that’s why he purposefully left a spot in his set list to rotate in a new group of songs every night. If someone is going to the show in Cleveland tonight and Auburn Hills tomorrow—and he inspires the type of fanaticism that means someone certainly did—he wants them to have two unique experiences.

In April, we went to the show in Pittsburgh on a Friday and Cincinnati on a Saturday. We saw Church perform nearly four dozen different songs on those two nights alone. In Pittsburgh, we met Buckshot, a West Virginia native who turned to us after every song and screamed, “This is America right here, man!” In Cincinnati, we met Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo of the world champion Chicago Cubs, who seemed equally as thrilled as Buckshot, if perhaps a little more reserved. Church has a way of taking stars and making them seem very normal, which is exactly that same normalcy that seems to appeal to his fans.

At the Phoenix stop on the tour, Michael Phelps hung out backstage, looking more like a music fan than a swimmer with 23 Olympic gold medals. He attended the national championship game with Church later that week, just two people at the very top of their respective professions watching a college basketball game. This was just a normal day on the Holdin’ My Own tour.

Church’s guitar tech, Michael Joe Sagraves, is a diehard Kentucky fan. He’s the one who whispers Carolina basketball score updates to Church when the singer is onstage and the Tar Heels are playing. Church isn’t a bandwagon Carolina fan. He’s hardcore, and spent one very late evening after the Cincinnati show analyzing the 2018 lineup possibilities if Tony Bradley decided to turn pro.

At one stop on the tour, Sagraves was asked for his first reaction when Church told him he wanted to plan an entire tour of three-hour shows that were different every night. No one in music does this. No one in music even considers this.

“I thought he was crazy,” MJ says.

Maybe he is. It was surprisingly grueling just to watch the two-set performance as a fan, so there’s no telling how demanding it is to actually perform it. But yet, there is Church in his t-shirt, jeans, and aviators, and when you looked around the arena, every single person—every single one, even those in section 202, as far as possible from the stage while still being located inside the arena—were on their feet. Go to any event in any arena anywhere, and that’s how you know it’s connected with the folks who bought the tickets. The lower level is on their feet because they’re close to what’s happening. The upper level only rises when they feel something, and every one of them felt something on this tour.

It was very much like going to a revival. “I’ll tell you what,” Church told every audience. “I’m going to give you everything I’ve got, and you’ve got to give me everything you’ve got right back.” Both parties to the deal took it very seriously.

Before the Cleveland show, Boone was relaying his exploits of the day, which included whipping a friend in a shooting contest.

“Maybe you can give me a shout out if you get on stage tonight,” the friend told him.

And then the five-year-old left absolutely no doubt whose son he is.

“If I get on stage?” he asked incredulously. “If I ever get off stage.”

 

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