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At Stagecoach, Eric Church Brings a Full Choir, Saves His Band for the Finale and Has His Polarized Fans Debating a Love-It-or-Leave-It Set

It would be hard to imagine a more actually polarizing set — as in, splitting real fans into roughly even, truly diametrically opposed camps — than the headlining show Eric Church delivered to round out the first night of Stagecoach in California. The 70,000 festival attendees will definitely not lack for anything to talk, or argue, about for the rest of the weekend, and the debate will also continue among the many more fans who watched the livestream on Prime Video and Amazon’s Twitch channel.

Rather than rock out, as many expected after Jelly Roll’s fast-paced preceding performance, Church — after about a 20-minute delay in starting the show — adopted a truly churchy aesthetic, seated on a stool in front of a giant stained-glass video wall and joined by a 16-member choir, fronted by the return of his longtime vocal accompanist, Joanna Cotton. This ethos was felt in covers of vaguely or overtly spiritual songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” and “This Little Light of Mine,” but Church mixed these up with distinctly secular and contemporary picks — throwing in snippets of Tupac and Snoop Dogg classics, a la “California Love” and “Gin and Juice,” to draw some kind of throughline between the sacred and the profane.

For the final two numbers of the 75-minute performance, including the always-rousing “Springsteen,” Church’s band did show up for what, at that point, counted as a surprise cameo. It was too late for many who’d already been alienated by the acoustic/gospel tenor of the majority of the set, but a thrilling and dynamic last-minute change of pace for some of those who consider themselves faithful members of Church’s congregation.

Church has a sense of occasion that sometimes leads him to do special one-off sets, of which this was definitely one, rather than the standard arena touring show many might expect to see at a festival. The specialness of the show enthralled many who consider themselves hardcore Church-heads, but it also created what many on hand described as a mass exodus of those who weren’t getting the hits and rock ‘n’ roll fervor they expected. (To be fair, although videos posted on social media showed scores of festivalgoers heading for the exit with their lawn chairs and blankets, any Stagecoach closing set is going to be marked by people heading for cars and campers, so isolated clips aren’t always indicative.)

 

In comments on Church’s Facebook page and in several fan groups, it was easy to immediately see the deep split. “Thank you for taking us to church! This was one of my top favourite shows of yours 18 shows in and it was bloody amazing!” wrote one fan. And: “This entire performance needs to be an album. INCREDIBLE and one his his best ever!” Another rave: “I realize this is not everyone’s cup of tea but for us diehard fans this is a dream.” “Best Church performance I’ve seen from him ever! I love his rockin’ side but man this was just what I needed tonight.”

But then, the dissenters: “Wtf was that?” read one typical, terse comment. And: “What a trainwreck performance. What were you thinking?” Others expounded at greater length: “Terrible. Read the room and redirect. Say you have to take a break and you’ll be right back after you regroup or something, but to go on like that bleeding my ears out with whatever that was… just truly awful. People spent time and money to watch the biggest choke show I think I’ve ever seen.”

Some were calm and took it in stride, like the fan group member who wrote, “Definitely a weird setlist.” Wrote another, who didn’t sound personally put off by the show but was mindful of a backlash: “One very shocking and interesting show he put on tonight. I’ve never seen an audience clear out of a venue so fast. He finished his show 30min early and was booed at the end when he actually decided to finally stand up for the first time. I hope he is alright and doesn’t get torn down too much for this show.”

Another fan page member: “I was there last night. I’ve seen EFC all over this beautiful country and I’m a huge fan. Could not be more disappointed with last night… He came out over 20 minutes late. You don’t do that at StageCoach. The techs scrambled all over the stage clearly trying to fix things that weren’t working. Then there was organ music that just blared for 5 minutes. For no apparent reason. For me it’s time and place and up front disclosure. A theater or a bar are IDEAL places for that set and it would have been an amazing experience. Standing in a dirt field in 25mph winds with 70,000 people was not the time and place. And it wasn’t ‘his’ crowd. He’s part of the bigger picture. One of the things I love about the dude is the middle finger he’s willing to give to ‘the man.’ But last night felt like that middle finger went directly to me. A buddy and I took his 22 year old son and 20 year old daughter and spent the drive out to Indio playing Church songs and telling them how much the show was gonna rock….it didn’t. First time I’ve left a Church show early…..”

Although reactions to the show didn’t typically have anything to do with the music, a few sensed an agenda they objected to in Church threading different types of music throughout his cover choices. Wrote one tweeter, “Jelly Roll just kicked the headliner’s ASS… because Eric Church decided we showed up to hear some fucking virtue signaling… unreal, insulting… Hey, get over your white guilt and play some fucking COUNTRY MUSIC.”

 

Some fans who relish the idea of Church as an outlaw actually took some delight in how polarizing it was: “Loving the haters melting down. It was incredible.” Another partisan: “The thought that keeps going through my mind this morning is… When 70,000 people are in an audience, how do you ensure the people that are TRULY there to see you get the best experience possible? You do exactly what Eric did last night! One review claimed ‘it was like the parting of the Red Sea’ with people running to the exit. Had I been one of the festival goers with a spot towards the back, I would 100% have been like… that’s right my friend, if you aren’t here for this, get outta the way so I can GO TO CHURCH!!!”

Church released a statement Saturday morning in a press release that further explained his intentions with the unusual set. “This was the most difficult set I have ever attempted. I’ve always found that taking it back to where it started, back to chasing who Bob Seger loves, who Springsteen loves, who Willie Nelson loves, you chase it back to the origin. The origin of all that is still the purest form of it. And we don’t do that as much anymore. It felt good at this moment to go back, take a choir and do that.”

He continued, “For me, it’s always been something with records, with performances, I’ve always been the one that’s like, ‘let’s do something really, really strange and weird and take a chance.’ Sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s okay if you’re living on that edge, because that edge, that cutting edge, is where all the new guys are going to gravitate to anyway. So if you can always challenge yourself that way, it always cuts sharper than any other edge.”

In any case, it’s hard to get the social media masses, or even the live audience, as riled up about the unexpected content of a Stagecoach show as music fans normally might be about a surprising Coachella set, so the fact that a show at ‘Chella’s county cousin is stirring up as much controversy seems to have achieved some kind of milestone.

The festival continues with probably choir-less headlining sets from Miranda Lambert Saturday and Morgan Wallen Sunday.

 

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