'Chief' rekindles long-dormant country spark

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

She's gone country, look at them boots. She's gone country, back to her roots.

-- Alan Jackson

My earliest musical memory is seeing country stars Loretta Lynn and Sonny James perform at the old Annie Bell Clark Elementary School auditorium in Tifton. I was 4 at the time.

I have to admit, I haven't seen a ton of country concerts since then. Nothing against the twangers and the boot-scooters, but as I got older I found rock and roll -- and usually the harder the better -- more to my liking.

But the dynamic one-two punch of Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert, who performed to a very loud and very appreciative cowboy boot-wearing audience at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center Saturday, has me reconsidering my musical roots.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say outside a pack of obvious landmark concerts -- Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, U2, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Tool, Metallica, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Woodstock, the White Stripes -- Church's performance ranks among the classic shows that are the main reason I fall in love with music all over again on a regular basis.

As for country music shows, well, the Jamey Johnson/Kenny Chesney combo at BamaJam 2010 is about the only one-two punch that registers on the same scale as the Church/Gilbert pairing.

Gilbert's performing chops have grown exponentially in the last couple of years, and he had to be in top form Saturday to keep from getting blown completely away by the passionate Church, whose 2011 release "Chief" is easily one of the Top 10 country albums of all time. That Gilbert managed to do so is a testament to his skills and to his most potent secret weapon: an exceptional band whose members don't mind mixing a little James Hetfield in with their twang and strum.

As Church's opener, Gilbert had a little less than an hour to make his case, and he did so with stirring renditions of "Dirt Road Anthem" -- which he co-wrote with Colt Ford, who will play locally at the Sasser Flea Market April 6 -- "My Kind of Party," "Country Must Be Country Wide" and "You Don't Know Her Like I Do."

But this night -- and the red-hot Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour -- belonged to the man they call Chief, who proved to be every bit as good as advertised and then some.

Kicking off his performance with a rousing version of his "Country Music Jesus," Church had the appreciative cowboys raising their beers in salute and the spellbound cowgirls kicking up their boot heels in adoration. Some two hours later, only a handful had left the arena. The throng that stayed walked to the parking lot reluctantly, even though the Chief sent them home happy with a powerful three-song encore of "Smoke a Little Smoke," "These Boots" and the perfect closer -- and one of 2011's best songs -- "Springsteen."

(Side note: Original Jersey Boy and Herald cops reporter Pete Skiba got a large slice of Hoboken Heaven last week when he caught the actual Boss's "Wrecking Ball" tour opener at Philips Arena in Atlanta. ... And he hasn't floated back down to Earth yet.)

In between his dynamic opening number and the climactic encore, Church showed north Florida what all the fuss he's generated is about. He tore through material from all three of his albums, doing most of the tunes on the Grammy-nominated "Chief," including a stirring version of "Homeboy," the super funky, Stevie Wonder-worthy "Creepin'" and a rousing "Beer in My Hand." Four songs in, he set the stage for the evening by declaring that the best country rocks, and on this night that's what Church and his five-piece band did, with abandon.

Certainly Gilbert and Church -- and Johnson and Luke Bryan and Dallas Davidson and Stokes and Andrew Nielson -- deserve credit for rekindling that old country music fire that had been lit in me as a young boy but had been reduced to a spark by all my rock 'n' roll heroes. It also didn't hurt that a certain 9-year-old blonde in the audience, seeing her first arena show, gave it her unwavering seal of approval.

"That was the coolest, and Brantley Gilbert was the best," she said on the late-night ride home.

Couldn't get much higher praise than that.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.