Walking up to the Huntington Center Thursday night, it was obvious it was going to be an unusual night in Toledo.
A recorded voice droned over loudspeakers, warning fans arriving to the Eric Church show that any fighting, vulgar language, or inappropriate signs would be cause for dismissal from the arena.
Inside, the distinctive smell of marijuana wafted from the bathroom and a Confederate flag was lifted high within the sellout crowd of 7,900 people.
There is perhaps no more polarizing figure in country music than Church. When he recently blasted reality shows, particularly “The Voice” and “American Idol,” in an interview in Rolling Stone, message boards across the Internet lit up with debate about Church. His fans are hardcore, his opponents don’t necessarily get how a country guy can be so rock ‘n’ roll.
But let there be no mistake, the energy at the Huntington Center Thursday night was unmatched by previous country shows. There have been incredible concerts, but never as much frenzy from start to finish.
The evening opened with Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke, who strode onto the purple light-bathed stage, befitting their name. This is hard-hitting Southern Rock revisited in group form, with long hair on all, bell-bottoms on some – if you squinted hard enough you might have thought you’d seen Gregg Allman.
The quintet was made up of well-put-together musicians, featuring strong guitars and solid honky tonk piano and organ. “Six Ways to Sunday” had the crowd stomping and clapping along despite their likely unfamiliarity with the song. The band’s Southern-steeped style featured touches of bluesy funk, especially on “Restless,” which featured jazz organ trading with breakout guitar solos. The group is made up of solid musicians, and at times their set seemed like the southern version of a jazz concert, with bandmates trading solos and then coming back together on a cover of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider.”
They closed their segment with a bass-driven stomp rocker “Shaking Hands with the Holy Ghost.” The Atlanta group likely gained some new northern fans with their solid set ahead of Brantley Gilbert.
The energy that Brantley Gilbert brought to his set was almost indescribable. If the energy from the pumping arms of the 2,000 people in the mosh pit arrayed in front of the stage could have been harnessed, it likely would have powered the Huntington Center.
Gilbert stomped on stage to “My Kinda Party,” a hit penned for Jason Aldean. Before Gilbert became an up-and-coming solo act, he was putting out hits for other artists. It’s always interesting to hear a songwriter interpret their own songs. Another artist takes the song, and learns it. The actual songwriter has lived it. Gilbert, a Jefferson, Ga., native knows how to party, and the crowd was with him every note of the way.
But the main man at the party was Church, and by the time Gilbert wrapped up his eight-song, 45-minute set with “Kick It In the Sticks,” the crowd was raring to go, and Church didn’t disappoint.
From the moment he rose from beneath the stage in a cloud of smoke to kick off “Country Music Jesus” until he wrapped up the show at his piano with “Springsteen,” the crowd remained on its feet.
Church hasn’t strayed from his set list on his “Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour,” so there were no surprises thrown in especially for the Toledo crowd, but Church has such a unique way of connecting with his fans that they don’t need any surprises.
After following “Country Music Jesus” with “Guys Like Me,” and “Hell on the Heart,” Church asked a favor of the crowd: “I’m supposed to be in Chicago tomorrow. If I give it all I got tonight and I’m not there, that’s all right. From this point forward, you give me all you’ve got.”
And they did.
The crowd reveled in “How About You,” “I’m Getting Stoned," and “Keep On,” but it almost enjoyed things as much when he slowed it down for “Two Pink Lines.” Maybe that’s because it gave them a chance to catch their breath, but maybe too it was because they got a glimpse into where Church came from.
He came from the clubs and honky tonks, building a loyal following by word of mouth and a take-no-prisoners attitude. Ask Church what he thinks, and he’s not going to lie to you.
Before singing “Two Pink Lines,” he again addressed the crowd and thanked them for helping him to become the star he is today. Then he stripped it down, standing center stage with only his acoustic guitar. For the next three songs, his band regrouped back stage while he connected on a more intimate level with the crowd.
He introduced “Love Your Love the Most” by telling the fans: “Don’t know what it is about Ohio, but ever since I started doing this thing, Ohio has always been my kind of people.”
But the party was in full throttle again as a curtain dropped and his band returned for “Drink In My Hand.”
He closed his main set with “Homeboy,” which kickstarted the near-platinum sales of his current album “Chief,” then returned to open his encore with the crowd favorite “Smoke a Little Smoke.” He ended the night on a high note with “Springsteen.”
He asked the crowd to take out their cellphones and light up the arena, and they did, making an impressive sight. Then he told the story of hanging out with friends when he was 16 years old and listening to Bruce Springsteen and falling in love.
“This song is about melodies and memories. When I sing it, I think about her. Hope you guys have someone you will always think about too. I remember Springsteen, and I promise I will remember you Toledo.”
There’s little doubt the feeling is mutual.
Contact Brian Dugger at: email@example.com or on Twitter @DuggerCountry.