Eric Church keeps making his Austin visits count. A big draw at the Austin City Limits Music Festival last fall, he came back in the spring for the inaugural iHeartRadio Country Festival at the Erwin Center, kicking off a star-studded bill that included major contemporaries such as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. Tuesday night, he crossed another mile marker, taping his first episode of “Austin City Limits” with a live-streamed concert at ACL Live.
He was clearly excited about appearing on the show he says he grew up watching — perhaps a little too excited, as he altered song lyrics to include an “Austin City Limits” reference no less than four times. The crowd gave him the requisite roar back with each one, from his call-out to an “Austin City Limits girl” in “Guys Like Me” to his recasting of a key line in the anthemic “Springsteen” as “like a soundtrack to an ‘Austin City Limits’ Tuesday.”
The latter song, which came near the end of the set, was an expected highlight, its key chorus line — “Funny how a melody/ Sounds like a memory” — summing up much of what makes Church’s music appeal to his audience. He acknowledged as much when he brought the volume from his tight six-piece backing crew down mid-song for a short spoken passage. That ability of a melody to recall a memory “is what music is all about,” Church offered, before adding, to the delight of the packed house, “No matter where I go in life from here, I’m always going to remember ‘Austin City Limits.’”
If his nostalgic tendencies run a bit sentimental at times, Church does come across as sincere, whether on “Springsteen” or the more recent hit “Talladega” (from his 2014 chart-topping album “The Outsiders”) or the set-closing solo ballad “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young.” The subject matter gets a bit more intriguing when he channels his good-ol’-boy charm into a more creative notion, as on “Dark Side,” in which he addresses his love for his son by hinting at the lengths he would go to protect him.
Church works in the mainstream country realm, and that means plenty of drinkin’ songs, from “Jack Daniels” (off his 2011 breakthrough album “Chief”) to “Cold One” to “Drink in My Hand,” plus obligatory alcohol references in many other tunes. That’s nothing new in country, of course, but given that Church pointedly positions himself as an artist trying to break new ground in the field, it’d be nice if he tried a little harder to work beyond its self-imposed stereotypes.
The low point is “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” a track from “The Outsiders” that sinks almost as low as Starship’s “We Built This City” in its mischaracterization of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit. The song dragged things down early in the set, but Church redeemed himself shortly thereafter with “Sinners Like Me,” the title track to his 2006 debut disc that he introduced as “my most autobiographical song.” With graceful acoustic backing (including fine accents of mandolin) from his bandmates, Church sang of his youth and his family with an honest simplicity that divined this North Carolina boy’s direction to an “Austin City Limits” destiny.
2. Guys Like Me
3. Jack Daniels
4. Give Me Back My Hometown
5. That’s Damn Rock and Roll
6. Cold One
7. Sinners Like Me
9. Dark Side
10. Drink in My Hand
11. Pledge Allegiance to the Hag
13. These Boots
14. Smoke a Little Smoke
16. Like a Wrecking Ball
17. The Outsiders
18. A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young